Martial Arts Making a Difference: Kenpo Karate’s J. Donald Burrier

The following are remembrance pieces from a handful of J. Donald Burrier’s students. Some were there from the beginning; others were there near the end. The individual’s starting time does not hinder the effect and influence Burrier had on them and how they moved forward in life and martial arts. Images provided by Irvin Gill.

My Relationship with Don Burrier by Tom Updegrove

J. Donald Burrier.

It was around 1975 when Don and little Jimmy walked into my school. Don was maybe in his late 30s. I guess because it was a long time ago and I have no records to look back to. Don wanted to train in the Martial Arts and had confessed to me that he was dying. He said that he was told that he had six months to live and that he wanted to train despite that and to keep his sanity. Who was I to say no, I’ve taught one armed men and kids on crutches what difference would this man’s request make? So, Don and little Jimmy started their journey into Kenpo and my eclectic approach to Martial Arts. I wish I could add more to the story but there is not much outstanding in my memory other than those two starting and going to class. Don was not the most gifted athlete in my recollection. He was an older guy with stiff joints and relatively average strength, speed, and coordination but with the obvious will, determination, and drive to overcome obstacles like death. My own path led me to sell the school a few years later and relocate in Center City Philadelphia from Mount Airy where Don took lessons. I went back to College and did not see Don again until his 47th birthday. I remember this well for two reasons. I had hosted a seminar with Ed Parker and lo and behold Don Burrier walks in. He looked great and was very energetic and I was impressed that he continued his Kenpo training and was a Black Belt to boot. Anyways, Ed Parker is going on as he did with wonderful stories about everything related and unrelated to Kenpo. He blurts out “I am 47 years old today, does any anyone else have a birthday today?” Sure enough, Don speaks out “I’m 47 today too, Sir.” Parker looks amused and surprised at the same time and not missing a beat goes “Yes, but I don’t look it!” Everybody busts up laughing, even Don. Although, I suspect it hurt his feeling a little. That is probably the last time I saw Don, might have at a BJJ seminar or some other Martial Art thing, can’t remember. As the years rolled by, I heard that Don became a loved teacher, as some say “Sifu.” That is absolutely wonderful, and I like to think that I had a little help with that. A few month ago, little Jimmy contacted me on Facebook, and we shared memories of old Don, good ones. What I did not share with younger Jim Burrier was that Don always called me Sifu and Jimmy, a wee young lad back then, would do the same, but it always came out as “See Food.” We all thought it was hysterical and to this day I still use the term under my breath for any dude older than me professing ultimate Martial Art knowledge.

One of the many Kenpo Karate drawings Burrier created.

Memories of Sifu Burrier by Joel Walsh

Donald J. Burrier was a man that became a dear person to me over time. At first, it was the title of Sifu, or teacher, in which he taught me my introduction to martial arts. My family went together to learn, but after a short while, I found myself being the only one interested in continuing. At first glance, he was a tall man, with a seemingly grumpy looking face and with old blue faded military tattoos on both arms. But as soon as you were greeted by him, his whole appearance changed. His smile, being the biggest, followed by a Clark Kent plume of pure white hair, and a pair of big hands that left a firm handshake that felt almost too strong for a man who appeared at his age. A gold crucifix and picture of a saint hung around his neck was always worn, even during training. He was a strong Catholic believer who had a few hobbies that didn’t seem to fit any first impressions of him. He loved to draw funny cartoons and incorporate martial arts into them. He began to take a great interest into learning Italian through Rosetta Stone. And was well-versed in being able to use a computer back then to the point of making CDs with information on them about martial arts or other such activities.

Joel Walsh (left) receiving his black belt from Burrier (right).

Along the way, he told a few stories about him being in the military. Some events that happened, not to him, but ones that he saw and felt would convey a message to me in some way, either about the techniques we were learning, or maybe as a life lesson. His dojo was one open room on the second floor that was clear of all furniture besides one bookshelf. The walls were adorned with pictures of people that were friends who inspirational people along with a variety of martial arts weapons. He would routinely go through a specific dance when we learned.

It started with me arriving in street clothes in which I would go change into my gi. After bowing to each other it would be a series of stretches that would be made to loosen up. Then, the training would begin. He would go through the techniques and simple movements, teaching you how to move and correcting when he saw something out of place. He was never harsh or mean when he did, he was just gentle and patient with you and praised when it was done correctly.

After a while of learning them, he would ask you to perform some techniques from memory as you progressed. Soon, there were times he would take me to go to other places, mostly to spar. He always seemed a little down that he couldn’t spar, at least like he used to, because of the blood thinners that he was on. But he seemed to enjoy just being around it, if anything else. Through one of these times, I was introduced to Sensei Irv Gill, a former student of Sifu Don. Time is not always kind, and for Mr. Burrier, it wasn’t the best. I was in college when I heard he had gotten stomach cancer that had returned. It seemed it came back stronger the second time. But that never seemed to kill his spirit. I was able to greet him one last time and have some final words with him. I never had a grandfather in my life, but through him, it always felt like I had one. I never spoke much or expressed myself much to him in a lot of ways, but if I could see him again, I would want to thank him. He may have not considered himself the best man, but he was pretty great to me, among many others in his life. I’ll never forget that man who taught me so much, and one thing is, “what do you do to win a fight? ‘walk away Sifu’ That’s right, and if you can’t walk away? ‘fight with everything I got’ That’s right.”

One of the many Kenpo Karate drawings Burrier created.

In Remembrance: Sifu J. Donald Burrier by Michael Aloia
Additional quotes provided by Pamela Aloia


There are many things that can influence a person’s life. Influence can be, at times, how experience is measured. Experiences are our way of cataloging the things in life that make the most difference, that have the biggest impact, that create the most change or simply fill in the gaps, big or small, from moment to moment. They are many and they are unique to each of us. No two experiences are the same.

For many, some of the greatest influences are the experiences we have with others. Such interactions often shape who we are and who we work to become. They are personal and for some, they are monumental. Some call such encounters dates with destiny. For martial arts practitioners, they are part of the path we travel to find our moment of Zen and connect deeper with ourselves.

I was very fortunate to have trained under J. Donald Burrier in the art of American Kenpo Karate. Direct students of Mr. Burrier addressed him by the honorific title of “Sifu,” which was a carryover of terminology from the art’s early Chinese influence. Sifu was an eclectic practitioner as he was an eclectic individual, after spending time in the Navy; Sifu had studied Shotokan Karate, Judo, TKD, and Modern Arnis in addition to his passion for Kenpo Karate. In his personal life, Sifu battled with several health issues, yet he studied languages, built bird houses and followed his faith without fail, all in an effort to live a more fulfilled life.

Sifu Burrier was someone you could trust as a man and as a person, yet someone who would challenge you as a martial artist, and depending upon the situation, as a person. He had strong moral beliefs and was proud of the life he had made for himself. Life wasn’t easy for him, yet you saw him make it a point to find the positive things in life and believe and focus and thrive on those. He was a good example in this regard. He instilled good qualities in people that stuck with them.

Pamela Aloia

It was evident, and no denying, his admiration and dedication to the art. Kenpo, for Sifu, was the pinnacle of martial arts study and he often used the analogy that “Kenpo was like Prego… (Prego, referring to the pasta sauce found at the supermarket and using their coined slogan would say) … it’s in there.” With Kenpo, Sifu had found, not only his way of doing what it is he did, but he also found what could have been considered his purpose. Yes, he was a dedicated family man – husband, father, and grandfather; he was a loyal friend, co-worker, and member of the community, but with martial arts, it wasn’t uncommon to catch Sifu doing something Kenpo related in addition to regularly teaching evening classes or training on his own. He would read, write, and watch all he could about the art … making his understanding deeper and, in turn, share his findings with others. His journey came to put him on a path of discovery to find knowledge, clarity and self-betterment.

Michael Aloia (left) with Burrier (middle), Irvin Gill (back right) and Pamela Aloia (right).

My time with Sifu was short compared to some students, but longer than others. Regardless, it was a special time in my life and one that I look back and remember often and fondly. We shared many classes together over a twelve-year span, not to mention countless lunches, where Sifu would make me baloney sandwiches, offer me a Snapple Iced Tea, and tell me stories from his past, relaying both his zest and zeal for life and all that it had to offer. He felt that with hard work, honesty and the desire to make a go at it, anything was possible.

Having lost my father at a young age, there were multiple times where, for me, Sifu would assume that role. He treated me like family; he treated me like one of his own and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to not only to have trained with him but to have gotten to know him as a person.

Much of how I work and interact with my own students over the years bares much resemblance to how Sifu taught and interacted with his students. I learned much in the way of human interaction from his teachings and from his personality and approach. At times, I find myself saying the exact same things as he did, even going as far as using some of the same analogies and jokes. In those moments, I usually find myself smiling and silently thanking him.

I feel he would want to be remembered as someone who made a difference. As someone who kept the light within someone burning, enabling them to continue to believe that they can go out and make a difference in the world. I believe Sifu’s heart and passion for martial arts and in life are carried on by the many students he taught and his colleagues alike.

Pamela Aloia

Life is what we make of it. Life is full of experiences and the experience of getting to truly know another human being is precious and it is sacred. It needs to be cherished and it needs to be honored. Honoring those individuals by remembering and retelling those experiences is how their memory is preserved and how it lives on for generations to come. Sifu J. Donald Burrier may not be an internationally known practitioner, but for those whom he taught and befriended, his service to the art and to our learning and life experience was nothing short of life changing.

One of the many Kenpo Karate drawings Burrier created.

In Dedication to J. Donald Burrier Roger O’Brian

The Arts To Me

First: I would like to thank Master Don Burrier for the many long hard hour s of time teaching me this great art of Kenpo. Master Burrier is not only my teacher but the best friend a person could ever want. Master Burris is like a father to me, we have spent many hours talking not only about Kenpo but many other Things that only a father and son could talk about. When I first started the taking lessons I was going through a very difficult time in my life. The many talks Master Burrier and I had, has given me a whole new outlook on life and has helped me out of these most difficult times. There is still a long hard road ahead.

“In Every Day in Every Way It Gets Better and Better” Master Burrier

Second: I would Like to thank my loving wife Kathy for all the time and understanding and patience for the long hard hours, I have put into the martial arts to reach this level. Thank You

Martial arts is the second best thing I have done in my life. The first was I married my loving wife Kathy.

When first starting Kenpo, which was not for me but my two daughters to learn self-defense. As a few months into the lessons my girls lost interest and I started to gain interest. I started taking it for the self-defense aspect. While going through the ranks and reading numerous books on the subject of the martial arts. I found the self-defense part is only a byproduct of the Martial Arts.

Martial Arts I found is good for your mind and body, it gives you a whole new lifestyle to look forward to. I find you can apply it to any aspect in life, whatever it may be. It has so many good benefits to gain from. It gives you a whole different aspect about yourself, other people and your surroundings. It gives you inner peace to your body and mind.

I have found from taking the art of Kenpo it becomes part of your life. Making you feel good physically and mentally. I found when I do not practice, I feel like I have missed something out of that day.

Martial Arts will build your self-confidence physically and mentally, improves reflexes and coordination, improves flexibility, increases strength and stamina, improves concentration in your work and studies, stress deduction and relaxation, great for self-discipline

Turning your thoughts from I Can Not Do It to I Can Do It

I think the world would be a better place to live in if more people would get into the Martial Arts and learn it’s benefits. This is why I get so much satisfaction from teaching. I can pass on all

the good aspects I have acquired through Kenpo to my students. During one of my lessons with one of my younger students. I asked him what Kenpo has done for him? His reply was:

“It makes me feel great and helps me to think more clearly. It has helped

me in my schoolwork to the point where I am now getting a 90 average on my report card. The marks I was getting before were just passing. He then told me it helps him concentrate much better to get these higher marks. Now when the teacher is teaching a lesson it seems to sink in a lot more”

His mom and I were talking one day after class. She told me there has been a great change in him for the better since he has been taking Kenpo. This makes me feel good not only as a teacher, but as a person to pass on all the good benefits Kenpo has to offer. Kenpo has taught me things and to do things, I thought I could never do in my life, this makes me feel good about myself.

The Feelings I Get from Martial Arts

“Great feeling of inner-peace”

“The sun now shines brighter a cloudy day it is not so cloudy anymore”

“When it rains this is liquid sunshine”

“The grass is greener now, then it ever was before”

“The birds now sing more beautifully now, then ever before”

“The flowers now smell more, then ever before, I now hear and see mother in a whole new way”

Life is a series of surprises and would not be worth keeping if it were not Ralph Emerson

On the following pages I have written a history in outline form on martial arts. I found it much easier to follow and remember facts and dates this way. I hope this outline will help future students in the understanding of the martial arts history as it has helped me.

I once again thank Master Burrier and my loving wife Kathy for their patience’s understanding.

Thank You Very Much,

Roger R O’Brien

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