Interview with Vermont Aikido Chief Instructor Aaron Ward: Vermont Aikido, Ken Nisson, and Terry Dobson, Part I

Aaron Ward had an interesting event occur during his aikido journey: he got to know Terry Dobson on a personal level during his time at Vermont Aikido. Taking the role of chief instructor since 2001, Ward took some time to talk about his aikido journey, his relationship with Terry Dobson and Ken Nisson, and how Vermont Aikido has made aikido more New England than Japanese. All images provided by Aaron Ward. This is this first part of a three-part interview. Read the second part here and the third part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Ward Sensei! Thank you for joining us to talk about your aikido journey!

Aaron Ward: Thank you for having me. I look forward to your questions.

MAYTT: In 1976, you began training both karate and judo. What factors made you gravitate towards those arts? In what ways did these two arts complement each other?

AW: In 1976, I was very young, and they were basically what were available at the time. Judo was pretty much offered locally and the karate, I had to travel a little bit to get to. I didn’t do them simultaneously, but it was my introduction specifically to Japanese martial arts. I’m not quite sure why, but I naturally leaned towards the Japanese martial arts. I have had exposure with the Chinese martial arts but, for some reason, the structure that came with the Japanese styles really appealed to me. My connection to judo was much stronger than to karate, I would say. I basically ended up starting because it was something I always wanted to do. Obviously, movies and media helped with inspiring me to move on that path.

MAYTT: Fast forward six years and you discovered aikido. What made you change your focus from karate and judo to aikido? How did your previous martial arts training prepare you for your newly found art, if at all?

AW: Before I started aikido, I was doing karate and judo, and these were the kinds of the things where my parents would pay for the course, and I would go to it. Aikido was the first martial art that I got to choose and got to pay for. At that moment, specifically sixteen years old, I chose it specifically because it was the cheapest martial art and the one that was the closest to where I was. To be honest, I had to work really hard to find an explanation of what aikido really was, because at that point, it was pre-Steven Seagal and before most of the recognition that aikido would get during the 1980s. What ended up happening is, because I had trained in a bunch of martial arts, I realized it was a lot closer to what my personal beliefs were and what my personal tendencies and nature were. Because both with karate and judo, to succeed at a high level, you had to be fairly assertive. In aikido, there was a place where you could be successful and not be as aggressive. I’ve found out over time, it pretty much balances out in any martial art you do, but it was something at that particular point in time the proximity – because I had to get myself there too – a lot of it was a practicality issue too. Realistically, if it hadn’t been something that spoke to me, I would’ve just moved on to another martial art. But when I started doing aikido, it didn’t take me long to realize that this was the martial art that I was going to do and it made it really easy for me, because my parents weren’t kicking in money too. I felt much freer to decide if I didn’t want to do it anymore or wanted to invest more time and money into it. And the latter is inevitably what I ended up doing.

Karate to a lesser extent prepared me for aikido. Judo definitely did. The major differences between grappling arts and striking arts, I’ve always been in the belief that you could do both, but usually people have a natural tendency to lean towards one or the other. When you start looking at the tendencies that come out from different styles, I’ve always been a grappler and having that physical connection and aikido allowed me what I had trained in judo – the connection, the kuzushi, and just getting a grip – really transferred pretty well from what I did in judo to my aikido.

MAYTT: I see. Over the course of your aikido journey, you’ve had the opportunity to train under many influential teachers, the first being Ken Nisson. What was he like as an instructor and a person? What aspect of you did he help mold as a sensei?

AW: My timing with Ken Nisson is that he was my first instructor and he taught me for a grand total of four weeks. Then, what ended up happening, later on in my aikido career, he returned and became the chief instructor to Vermont Aikido. When I first studied with him, the one thing I really appreciated about him is they had a very specific vision of what he thought aikido was. So, when he ran the class, it was a very structured experience. After he left, we had another instructor, Hue Young Sensei, who was very good, and he was also one of these individuals who had been practicing a while and just barely received his shodan. It wasn’t as polished as Ken Nisson, but for quite some time before Ken returned, I was training with Hue Young. In that period of time, that was when Terry Dobson started coming back into the dojo. With Ken Nisson, at least when he returned the second time, I got to know him a lot better because at that time, when I first started with him, I was sixteen years old, trained with him for four weeks, and I knew absolutely nothing about him personally. When he returned as the chief instructor in the 1990s, I was basically what we called the “dojo monkey.” That was the person that the dojo was open, there was water, that the bills were getting paid, and a lot of that kind of stuff. With that, I got to know him quite well. He also developed my relationship with Bond Street Dojo in New York City, so I had the opportunity to meet Paul Kang Sensei and Chris Jordan Sensei, who I still have a strong relationship with. I had a strong relationship with him until his passing. That was also the introduction with Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU).

MAYTT: Around what time did Nisson leave the dojo when you joined?

AW: He left sometime between 1982 and 1983. He pretty much went from Burlington, Vermont to New York City and he was involved with Bond Street Dojo at that time. He wasn’t necessarily the chief instructor there because at that point in time, Paul Kang Sensei and Chris Jordan Sensei were chief instructors, where he was teaching regularly at Bond Street. During that period of time when he left, Hue Young was chief instructor until probably the early 1990s – probably 1990 or 1991. That was about the time when Vermont Aikido approached Ken Nisson and encouraged him to move back up to Vermont to become our chief instructor. At which time, he returned up here with his wife and new son to get out of the city to raise his son. I think he was in Burlington from the early/mid-1990s to early 2001. That’s when I became the chief instructor of Vermont Aikido.  

MAYTT: What was your relationship like with Nisson throughout your time with him? How did that association change or solidify your initial impressions of him?

AW: The understanding was when Hue Young left, for a brief period of time, I think up to a year, two things had happened at that point in time: Hue Young decided he was going to leave Vermont Aikido and Terry Dobson passed away. During that time, we had no senior students to keep running the dojo. I was shodan at this time and I stepped in and basically ran the dojo until Ken Nisson came in the mid-1990s. I was covering pretty much everything; making sure the classes were covered and making sure the rent was getting paid. When Ken Nisson came to the dojo, the understanding was that I would be continuing the same exact thing I was doing, but he would be basically be the sensei, he would set the direction of the dojo, he would do testing, help build a relationship with other dojos like Bond Street and a national organization, like ASU. There was also this component that isn’t really written in the books of what I did was help him personally, as far as finding a place to live, trying to make sure certain things in his life went smoothly so he could focus predominantly on the dojo. At that time, I got to know fairly well, and I found out that he’s from California and his parents had a place in Modesto, where he was raised for the most part.

He first started studying judo out in California and he got to a high-level brown belt, just before black belt, I think. He ended up moving to New York City at some point to do advertising because he’s an artist. He ended up training with Koichi Tohei, the sensei that created Ki Society. I’m not sure where exactly how this fits into the timeline but Tohei was in New York for a brief period of time, so he was studying with Tohei. He was also studying at 18th Street [New York Aikikai] with Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei. At that time, Terry Dobson moved to New York. Oddly enough, the two of them were roommates and they didn’t even know that each other did aikido. I think Terry just came back from Japan and he was looking to get back into training, so he and Ken started training together at 18th Street. The way that things naturally happened, especially if you knew Terry’s personality, he didn’t totally fit in at 18th Street and Terry decided to open up his own dojo, Bond Street, which I believe was started in 1973. Vermont Aikido was founded in 1972 by Terry while in Vermont; when I say founded, it was a bunch of people in a muddy field, practicing. That was the beginning. He had certain students, but it wasn’t like there was no dojo or anything like that.

Ken Nisson, from there, ended up doing a lot for early ASU. He and Terry helped when Mitsugi Saotome Sensei came to the United States after leaving Hombu Dojo and wanted to start aikido in the United States. They were instrumental in organizing a lot of the initial seminars for Saotome Sensei. Because of the political situation, it was difficult for Saotome Sensei to just get off the plane and start teaching at different places because everybody had their own little relationships that they had to make sure they didn’t offend the people that were higher up than them. So, it was an awkward situation, but it ended up working out fairly well.

To be honest, other than just the bare bones of it, I don’t know a lot about Ken Nisson’s aikido background other than his 18th Street experience, so Yamada Sensei, Mitsunari Kanai Sensei, and all those other people were probably some of his early instructors in aikido. A lot of that runs up to the time when he left Bond Street and Paul Kang Sensei and Chris Jordan Sensei started running the dojo.

MAYTT: In the 1980s, you began training with Terry Dobson, a cofounder of Vermont Aikido. How did he differ in terms of instruction to Nisson? What was his main focus as an instructor?

AW: I tell my students that asking me about Terry is a dangerous situation because I know a lot more about Terry than I probably should, and I can talk about him forever. One of the things about Ken is that he had a tendency to be more structured. Once again, I am comparing him to my personal experience. If you’ve studied with Yamada Sensei, Kanai Sensei, or Saotome Sensei, they’re much more structured than Ken was, but he had a very specific idea about what the class would work on. As he taught, it was kind of clear what his class was going to be about. Terry was a shotgun approach. He would get in there and if you talked to him and said something in a different way than he was thinking, he would change the class totally. Or if something happened on the mat, he would totally change what he was planning on doing because that was more interesting.

Taken in either 1967 or 1968, Terry Dobson participates in a birthday party that the foreign students had for O-Sensei.
Taken in either 1967 or 1968, Terry Dobson participates in a birthday party that the foreign students had for O-Sensei.

As far as Terry’s teaching, one of the people I studied with when Terry was teaching basically said about him that he has a mixed bag – he has hits, and he has misses. One of the things you need to keep in mind about Vermont Aikido is that we were the testing ground for what he did with seminars. So, if he was going to do a seminar out in California, he would have a bunch of little things he would put together and do them in an hour class to see what worked. If it didn’t work, quite often, he would get rid of it. But there was this whole kind of really odd mixture between self-improvement exercises and stuff that he had learned at Hombu Dojo. Just the fundamental concepts of taking aikido philosophies and trying to make them more accessible for the West. A good example of that thing is talking about when you’re creating the wave energy – the ki coming through the body. He explained that at one point in time with a bullwhip. In class, he would get the bullwhip out and do his little monologue. It was fascinating to me at one time that he would do this kind of stuff and go and do the seminar. But he wouldn’t tell us anything that he did.

Years after he had passed away, I’d see these seminars on tape, and I would remember when he would run through these things with us! We were the guinea pigs because he didn’t want to go out to a seminar and do a crappy seminar off some concepts that he hadn’t worked out so we would be getting a lot of the material firsthand. At the same time, he was comfortable and uncomfortable teaching aikido. To a certain degree, I think he accepted the fact that it took him some time to get to a point where he realized the significance of what he was doing. He was always convinced that it was going to be important but, at the time when I knew him, he had no idea how it was going to be important and we’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to use aikido in the bigger world. He was convinced that it had value outside the dojo. A lot of things that he ended up doing was geared towards taking it off the mat, especially when you’re dealing with dojos like Bond Street and Point Reyes in California, and other places mainly on the East and West Coast that he traveled quite frequently.

The main time I was training with Terry, it was right before his passing, so it was a five-year span where I trained with him on a regular basis. At that point in time, he was not the chief instructor of the dojo. He was a sensei and acknowledged as the founder of Vermont Aikido, but Hue Young was the chief instructor, but he would have a regular class on Tuesdays. At that time, his health was so bad that he would come to class and he and I had an understanding that if his health was not good enough, he would come and sit on the bench, but I would teach the class. What would end up happening is we’d have a class, anticipating Terry. For some reason, Terry couldn’t breathe properly so he would sit on the bench, and I would basically do the class that Terry last taught – we would go through the class again. Terry would sit on the bench and as things were going on, Terry would call me over, tell me something, and I would go out to the class and do it. About the third time he called me over, the whole class stopped and just looked at him. Then he would basically say what he needed to say instead of going through me. That worked in our relationship at that point in time because I knew this was a person that had a lot to offer and for me, trying to get a direct connection or link and pretty much, Terry was my direct conduit.

It is also important to keep in mind Terry, as far as organizing classes, he was far from coherent. It took him a long time to get certain things down and put it into a pattern. That’s why when would go to California, he would do a lot of work in Vermont so he could whittle things down, so it looked kind of like he intended to do a lot of this stuff. When he got out there, did that, and from what I’ve been told, looked a lot better from what he was beginning to do in Vermont. But that was part of his process. That was one of the differences with Ken. When Ken came onto the mat and teach, Ken was basically doing something very specific and when he was doing it, you got the feeling that that was something he really wanted to do. Terry was easily distracted by shiny objects and if he thought he’d get something more out of something, he’d instantly turn the class around and go in a different direction. But that part of who Terry was and that leans into that period of time in Bond Street. a lot of stuff was going on and a lot of it was basically what’s the general flow and what was felt at the moment. That became a major factor as far as the fundamental concept of training. How do you feel today? And that became the focus of the class.

MAYTT: The differences are like night and day. From your knowledge, how did Dobson come to train under O-Sensei?

AW: When I say this, I realize that Terry believed what he was saying was true but other people have come back and said that it wasn’t really like that. The only thing I tell you is what I was told by him and what other people told me directly. The reason that Terry was in Japan was because he was participating in a precursor to what would become the Peace Corps. There was a rural agricultural program that allowed American students to go to Japan and help with farms or something, this was all after World War II and right after Korea. He had studied judo. He already had a martial art background. He was also a football player, so he had a physicality that leaned into Japanese martial arts. The story that he had told me was that in the midst of contemplating suicide, he got a sliver in his finger and decided that he had to go to the doctor, so he put off planning his suicide. He had this sort of moody, potentially he could have committed suicide, but he had a sliver, so he went to the doctor. As he’s sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, there’s a magazine that has an article about O-Sensei. he looks at it and says that he’ll check it out. He did and what happened to him was he saw it and was so impressed that he wanted to invest his time and effort into it.

At that point in time, there’s a debate whether Terry was considered uchi deshi. I find it problematic in a couple of different ways. I think a lot of it goes back to when Terry did his “Kind Word Turneth Away Wrath” story in Reader’s Digest. Reader’s Digest at that time would track down to find out whether the story was true or not, because in Reader’s Digest, all the stories are supposed to be true. So, they called Hombu Dojo and asked if Terry trained with O-Sensei. Apparently, Hombu Dojo’s response was that Terry lived amongst the uchi deshi. At that time, the only non-Japanese individual who had had that kind of experience was an instructor from France, André Nocquet. At the time Terry was living with the uchi deshi, Nocquet wasn’t there anymore. I believe the only reason that Terry became uchi deshi – or didn’t – was that he was finding it too difficult to travel from where he was to come and train all the time, so that would be where he would crash. He wasn’t asking to train with O-Sensei, what he was asking for was, “Is there some place to sleep so I don’t have to travel a couple of hours just to do training?” One instructor basically put a word in that he was allowed to participate with the uchi deshi and what they did. The aikido news video of Terry and O-Sensei, there are a couple of different clips of that, what Terry told me about that specific filming was that was about six months after he started training. It doesn’t quite line up with the timeline that has been put out there, but my guess is that Terry’s remembering when that filming was and when he started training is in flux. When you look at Terry in the film, you can see this is a person that’s been practicing for about six months because he looks scared of everything and doing that with O-Sensei.

Terry had stories of carrying O-Sensei’s bags on trains, being told to never let him out of his sight, having the train tickets being pinned to his jacket so he doesn’t lose them, just trying to keep up with O-Sensei. And being this big American, bowling through, knocking people down just to keep up with this little Japanese man who’s just weaving through traffic like a lightning bolt through train stations. Stories of him doing demonstrations in libraries and private studies at a naval academy where people are sitting there drinking their scotch and the fire was roaring; O-Sensei was talking about aikido and throwing Terry around and Terry trying to adjust his ukemi so he wouldn’t knock over that porcelain vase or that priceless treasure. Terry had also said that when O-Sensei was on his deathbed, Terry was asked to come and speak with O-Sensei. Terry said that he wasn’t the first to be asked but he wasn’t the last. And that was amongst O-Sensei’s immediate students. They were asked to come and have the parting words.

I find it difficult to not think of Terry as uchi deshi. But, once again, this is a determination that Hombu Dojo would make, and I think there is a certain desire to kind of control the idea of what O-Sensei’s lineage was. I never spoke with anybody about that issue but there are people who basically said that Terry was never uchi deshi. I’m pretty sure that there was never a certificate that was given out that tells you that you were uchi deshi of O-Sensei. But at that point in time, O-Sensei’s son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei, was running the show anyway. I think most of Terry’s classes were with him and there’s stories about the interrelationships with people who were uchi deshi. Terry used to talk about Yamada Sensei and Kanai Sensei. Kanai Sensei and Terry had this really weird back and forth relationship too but it’s difficult to think that the people there wouldn’t.

After O-Sensei had passed away, he ended up coming to the United States, coming to Vermont first because his family had property in the islands. He basically lived in a cabin up there for a while and would back down to New York City to work to teach. So, when he was up here, he started Vermont aikido in 1972 and I believe he started Bond Street in 1973. Check with the Bond Street people about that because I’m going off what Terry had told me.

Terry never truly made total peace with the time he spent with O-Sensei because I think part of it was that people were constantly reminding him that he studied with O-Sensei. From what Ken told me, Terry would always ask what they were teaching on any given night and Ken’s response was, “You trained with O-Sensei. You tell me!” I don’t think Terry was ever comfortable with that. He was more comfortable sitting there, telling you stories about all these little weird things that happened at Hombu Dojo and what this person was like when he was young, which he never really said in class but in those times when you’re carrying his luggage around and stopped for a beer, and if you ask the right question, you get some pretty interesting stories. I thought that, in many respects, the accessibility of having Terry be pretty much a big dumb white guy from New England, spending time with O-Sensei kind of gave that perspective a much more human face on O-Sensei. Right from the very beginning and more power to them, the desire in Japan to paint O-Sensei as this monolith of what aikido should be. And Terry would sit there and tell little stories, “Oh, yeah. He’s all that, but he’s more!”

MAYTT: That is an interesting turn of events. How would you describe Dobson as a person? Was it in contrast to what he was like as an instructor?

AW: I think with Terry, you’re dealing with two aspects of him that were Terry the person who studied with O-Sensei and Terry the instructor. Terry the instructor, if you look at a lot of what he was doing in the 1970s, he was getting into the self-help movement and part of the men’s movement in the 1980s. the first book he wrote, Aikido in Everyday Life: Giving in to Get Your Way, which was basically a self-help book. From what I was told, Terry said that the book did okay, but it wasn’t a great success. But what happened was that one place ordered a lot of the books was the Air Force Academy because it was one of those early self-help books, but it was a whole concept about what you need to do to influence people to do x or y. It was responding to the relationship aspect of it. I think even before he did his book, he put into Reader’s Digest, the article, “A Kind Word Turneth Away Wrath.” That was the first thing he had published. The second thing he had published was an article in Esquire magazine, which was fundamentally just an analysis of body movement and how if you’re walking with authority, people will not necessarily take advantage of you – that fundamental dime store psychoanalysis. But the thing that had always stuck with him was the Reader’s Digest story and a lot of it wraps about that was something when we wrote it, it was going to be this kind of throwaway thing he did and move onto other things. What he didn’t realize is that he referred to it at one point in time as the millstone around his neck because he knew that when he died there would be a tombstone and, on his tombstone, it would say: “Terry Dobson, However Old, the Writer of the Train Story” because he called it the Train Story.

Dobson at seminar at Bond Street Dojo in New York City in 1990.
Dobson at seminar at Bond Street Dojo in New York City in 1990.

One of the famous stories he tells is when he was driving across Nebraska, and it was probably about two o’clock in the morning and it was basically a straight line that drove into infinity. You have corn on either side and he’s bombing down this road and there’s nothing there. And the only thing that he could get on the radio were there fire and brimstone preachers on the radio. So, he’s driving down this road in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, and the preacher on the radio says, “I want to tell you a story about a man on a train.” And he felt that was going to be the epitaph in his eulogy. He did a lot of interesting stories but, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of anything else that really connected to the public as much as that particular story.

By the time Terry passed away, Ken was back in the dojo, but it was obvious from the stories I heard from around Terry, not Terry himself, but from people like Mary Heiny Sensei. When she trained in Japan, she basically said when she first met Terry, she didn’t want anything to do with him just because of his personality. What I’ve heard, his personality in Japan was much more problematic than when he got back to the States. But he was also going to aikido classes in Japan as a twenty-something year old trying to figure out what kind of human being he wanted to be. To a certain degree, he struggled with that for most of his life, trying to figure out who he wanted to be and how he wanted to fit into the aikido community.

This is this first part of a three-part interview. Read the second part here and the third part here.

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