Interview with Berks Fencing Club Founder Jon Weaver: The Beginning

Jon Weaver first began fencing in 2000 but had a spark to join back in 1964. After publishing an article in his local newspaper and recruiting Adam Feldman, they established the Berks Fencing Club in 2001. Since then, Weaver has consistently taught beginners at the club, giving them a firm foundation to grow from. Today, Weaver took some time to talk about how he entered the fencing community and founded his club. All images provided by Dan Bonfitto.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Jon and thank you for joining us today!

Jon Weaver: It is my pleasure.

MAYTT: When did you begin fencing and what aspects of the sport continue to motivate you to train and coach?

Jon Weaver in his Sunday best.

JW: My introduction to fencing was in winter of 2000 via a course given by adult education organization Main Line School Night. The purely focused quality of the sport – the way every item of technique contributes the goals of scoring touches and preventing them being scored against you – motivates me to continue participating and to share that quality with beginners.

MAYTT: How have you seen the training regimen change or modify itself since you began fencing? Would you consider these modifications and adaptations to have positive or negative effects on current fencers? How so?

JW: Because I have limited myself to teaching beginners the basics of fencing, I have not seen much change. We continue to pass on the techniques developed over centuries. I believe, however, that coaches involved in more competitive programs likely have seen significant changes in the regimen of fitness training.

MAYTT: What influenced your decision to primarily instruct beginners? How has that experience changed or modified your perspective on fencing?

JW: I felt that, with a second exposure to a basic course, I had adequately comprehended the fundamentals of guard, movement, attacks and parries to pass that along to others in the same form. While I feel like my experience has made me a better fencer, I haven’t had formal instruction in advanced techniques that I could imitate to pass them along to students. My experience working with beginners has only increased my appreciation of how important the basics are.

MAYTT: What was the fencing community like when you first started fencing? Was it a robust community, teeming with fencers, or was it characterized by small pockets of clubs and schools isolated from each other?

JW: The community was harder to find when I began, and there were fewer clubs to be found, even in the Philadelphia area, which has been relatively rich in resources because of its universities.

MAYTT: You mentioned that the overall fencing community is small and a niche community. In your opinion, why do you think the sport’s community is hyper focused, so to speak?

JW: I think that the thin geographical distribution of opportunities to fence outside of major cities makes it difficult for those in small cities, distant suburbs and rural areas to access fencing and to participate week after week. Competing outside of a home club involves even longer travel times. These difficulties create attrition, and only the most engaged people stick with it.

MAYTT: I see. Fencing has been around for centuries and the public’s perception of it changes with each generation. How did the American public view fencing when you began, and have you seen a change in that perception since you started?

JW: Fencing was very much a niche sport when I began, and still is, although I believe public awareness is growing primarily because of more exposure in Olympic coverage. In my first fencing class, the instructor asked each of us to introduce ourselves and tell the group what movie had caused our interest in fencing. Everyone of twenty students had a movie as a motivating factor, except me. I’d seen a clip of single touch on ABC’s Wide World of Sports in about 1964 that I thought was supercool. Now students in our beginner classes are much more likely to have seen Olympic fencing, although some still have an interest in sword fighting inspired by Star Wars.

MAYTT: Tells us about the history of Berks Fencing Club. Who founded the club and how has the club itself helped elevate fencing in the region?

JW: Berks Fencing came into being in the spring of 2001. Following my introduction, I was seeking a way to continue but having difficulty finding a program that was convenient, low cost, low key, and adult oriented.

At the time, I was working in the features department of Reading Eagle, the daily newspaper in Berks County. A fitness reporter, Susan Stine, joined the department. She had fenced in high school in northern New Jersey. When we chatted about the sport, it occurred to me that if we looked around, we probably could find a way to do a story about fencing with a Berks basis.

In the fall of 2000, I visited a club getting started in Paoli, Chester County. It wasn’t the situation I was looking for, but I asked the maestro there if he knew anyone in Berks who fenced. He told me about Dr. Adam Feldman, a cardiologist, who had been National Collegiate Athletic Association foil champion for Penn State in the 1980s.

Jon making a point about epee to Rishi. Sujanna prepares to direct the bout.

Stine reported and wrote the section-front story based mostly on Feldman’s experience. I assisted and edited. As the story was going to press, I sought and was given permission to include a brief note asking anyone interested in fencing to call my home phone.

There were about thirty responses, among them contact from a personal trainer, Marci Christian, who was learning fencing from another Berks doctor, Joe Leone, so that she could be his training partner. A meeting was arranged, and the club organized, with the trainer’s gym as our location. We asked Ed Kane, who had Black Diamond Fencing in Harrisburg, to be the instructor for our first course.

Hundreds of people have participated in our introductory courses over the years, and pre-pandemic we would usually do one or two demonstrations in the community each year.

MAYTT: That is amazing! How has the club been affected by the constant storm that is the COVID pandemic? In your opinion, how has the club adapted and survived during the pandemic, and do you think those changes will stay with the club and/or fencing even after the end of COVID?

JW: COVID shut down our operations for several months. When USA Fencing, the national governing body, announced protocols for resuming operations, we did so. USAF requires that participants wear a mask covering nose and mouth, even under the fencing mask. This has somewhat suppressed attendance. We hope for a return to single mask fencing in a post-pandemic world.

Jon and Rishi bouting with Sujanna directing. Caught on camera, the elusive epee double touch!

MAYTT: How has the Olympics helped maintain fencing in the public eye? If the sport was not in the Olympics, would fencing still have the following it does today?

JW: The Olympics, and especially the way the sports are handled in the new media coverage of the Olympics, are very important. We see a small surge in interest in Olympic years.

MAYTT: Within the combat sports/arts community, Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) has been growing steadily since the late 1990s. In your experience, how have you seen HEMA effect fencing? Is it a positive or a negative effect and do these effects provide a bridge to cross-community interaction?

JW: My experience with HEMA is limited to a few practitioners coming into Berks Fencing to try out our thing. None of them stuck with us. I think sport fencing and HEMA serve very different interests, competition for sport fencers and role-playing for HEMA.

MAYTT: Final question. Given your time within the sport, what do you think the future holds for fencing? How will the sport adapt itself to a post-COVID world?

JW: I foresee continued growth in fencing, largely because of the internet and social media, which makes it much easier for those exposed to the sport to find a place to learn and participate in it.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us and walking us through the foundation of Berks Fencing Club!

JW: Thank you for having me.

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