Interview with MIT Aikido Club Chief Instructor Matthew Bagedonow: Dick Stroud and MIT Aikido Club’s Beginnings

Matthew Bagedonow met Dick Stroud in 1972, becoming a student of Mitsunari Kanai based at the New England Aikikai. Bagedonow tells how Stroud was part of the initial Aikido group that requested a Hombu Dojo representative in the Boston area, eventually leading to the creation of the New England Aikikai. In 1978, Stroud founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Aikido Club, which Bagedonow helped teach, taking over operations when Stroud passed in 2014. Today, Bagedonow talks about his late friend and senpai Stroud and his contribution to New England Aikido. All images provided by Matthew Bagedonow.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Bagedonow Sensei! Thank you for joining us today!

Matthew Bagedonow: Thank you for having me! I look forward to talking about Dick Stroud.

MAYTT: How did you come to find Aikido and learn from Dick Stroud? What is it about the art that continues to motivate you to train to this day?

Matthew Bagedonow.

MB: Well, it’s a long story. It’s an old story. It goes back to the early 1970s really. I was living with a group of people in Roxbury in Boston at the time, and they were starting to practice Aikido at the New England Aikikai. I am a student of Mitsunari Kanai Shihan and so was Dick. You probably know this, but Kanai Sensei founded New England Aikikai in 1966. There was another organization out in Concord, Massachusetts called The School We Have, and it was a loose organization of people doing all kinds of activities. Dick was a very accomplished painter and he taught art there. I think he had started practicing with Kanai Sensei, I’m sure, back in the 1960s, whether it was in 1966 or shortly thereafter. When I started practicing, Dick was first kyu at that time, in 1972. He had obviously been practicing for a while. What happened was that from different points of contact between the people I was living with at that time and independently attending this place called The School We Have, Dick arranged for Kanai Sensei to teach at The School We Have.

Personally, I had no interest in martial arts. I was more interested in the Zen and that sort of spiritual practice. When I saw Kanai Sensei, just seeing him, I realized that he was the real deal. I started practicing out at The School We Have, and Dick was teaching drawing there also and practicing as well. That’s where I met Dick in Concord, at The School We Have, which was run by a psychiatrist named Shep Ginandes. In any event, I started practicing there, and I asked Kanai Sensei some questions about Aikido. I asked how it relates to Zen and he just looked at me and said, “You practice!” [Laughs] He was a man of few words, often. That was it, but that was enough for me. [Laughs] As I practiced more, I got to know Dick more and more. Dick had started the MIT Aikido Club in 1978 and actually, Dick had founded several dojos. He had founded another dojo in Jamaica Plain, which is another part of Boston. Primarily, he taught at MIT. He also taught art at MIT as well. That’s how I knew Dick and it just went from there. He was one of my best friends in fact. That’s kind of the origin story I would say.

The motivation has changed in my mind over the years. Aikido is part of my being – it’s just become a part of my being after all this time and practice. And there are many ways that I’ve realized that. How can I say this – because it’s almost ineffable really, but it’s about the relationship between humans and the world as it exists and surrounds them, surrounds us; it’s always aspirational for me. I’m always aspiring. It keeps changing. It’s like shomen uchi irimi nage; it’s, to me, the essence, and maybe the essence of Aikido, in its movement and expansion,

I remember someone asked O-Sensei, “How come I can’t do what you do?” and he said, “You don’t understand aiki inyo-ho!” Which means, you don’t understand yin and yang – “inyo-ho” is yin and yang in Japanese. It is that sort of movement back and forth that happens in between movements, along with breath. Yin, which is the expansion, and the yang, which is the contraction. The other thing that I said to my students is about ai uchi and ai nuke, which is the essence of why I practice and why we practice. To aspire to something more than what we are in a day-to-day life, as we go about just trying to live, to survive. It is my spiritual practice

I am not a religious person otherwise. And I think Dick brought a certain eye that he had as an artist to Aikido. We would practice visually, internally visually – not so much use of the eyes – in relation to somebody else’s body – another person. I think Dick used that, his sense of internal vision as an artist, as a way to inform his Aikido and a way that his Aikido informs his art. That’s my feeling about it and I had discussed it with him.

I guess I keep practicing because it’s always an aspiration for more understanding. That’s the basic reason – to go deeper into understanding the nature of Aikido and how it relates to my being.

MAYTT: I was actually reading something today where a lot of teachers today are now looking for deeper connections between people – that interpersonal connection.

MB: It’s interpersonal on a certain level. My students are not necessarily my friends, but some of them are. I mean, Dick was my friend. They’re not always my friends, but they’re human. Aikido is essentially social. Out of all the martial arts, it is the one that is the most social. I’m not sure about Daito-ryu, where Aikido came from, but Aikido is, essentially, social. You really cannot practice Aikido alone. You need a partner to practice Aikido – that’s essential. Because that learning and understanding of yourself and the other happens in that interaction. It’s unique in that way, I think.

MAYTT: To your knowledge, what was Stroud’s martial art background like? Did he begin in one martial art and transitioned over to Aikido? How did he find Aikido and come to train under the late Mitsunari Kanai?

MB: You know, I don’t know. I mean, Dick was always kind of there, you know what I mean? [Laughs] I moved to Boston in 1969 and he had been around here longer than that. He was an artist and actually went to the Museum School here, which is the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and graduated from there. He was in the Army also, probably back in the 1950s, because he’s about fifteen years older than me. I’m seventy-three.

Dick Stroud.

In any event, he boxed in the Army, I know that. He started in boxing and boxing is a martial art. So how he found out about Aikido, I really don’t know. When I started practicing, the dojo was in a part of Cambridge called Central Square, but it had previously been in a small place in Boston. There were a number of students who started practicing and I don’t know who founded the dojo, but they wrote to Hombu and wanted to know if they could get a teacher. Hombu sent Kanai Sensei. He arrived in 1966, I don’t think speaking a word of English frankly! [Laughs] It must’ve been quite an adventure for him, I’m sure. I think Dick started practicing at that early dojo back then. How he found out about Aikido, I don’t know because it was obviously really obscure back then.

MAYTT: So that school that you just talked about that Stroud was a part of, that was the foundation of what would later become New England Aikikai?

MB: Right. Exactly. When it actually became New England Aikikai, I’m not sure. When I joined in 1972, it might’ve moved to that location in 1968 or 1969, I’m not sure. Either way, it was New England Aikikai by then. And there were quite a few people practicing. I mean the mat was full. There were probably, at any given night, thirty to fifty people practicing.

MAYTT: Oh wow.

MB: Oh yeah. There were quite a number of people practicing then. Even then, 1972. It was the times. There was a whole contingent of macrobiotics practitioners in Boston – the Japanese-based diet – and there were a lot of people who practiced macrobiotics that practiced Aikido because I think the founder of macrobiotics, George Ohsawa, was friends with O-Sensei. So, there’s some connection there. Michio Kushi was the head of macrobiotics; he was in Boston. I think Boston was a hotbed of macrobiotics. I mean, I’ve eaten that way, I didn’t follow that diet. It’s a healthy diet. But there were people who practiced macrobiotics that trained in Aikido.

MAYTT: In my experience, Aikido and martial arts have a way of bringing out some of the odd people.

MB: No question. It’s okay. We’re one big human family. It’s good to see people who are different and actually practice with them because you get to understand them and feel who they are! Anyway, the dojo was quite thriving when I joined.

MAYTT: Both you and Stroud were students of Kanai. How did the training at the MIT club under Stroud and Kanai’s New England Aikikai compare to each other? Were there aspects that one did better than the other or was it like comparing night and day?

MB: Well, I mean, it’s different because of different teachers. I have to say, first and foremost, I was a student of Kanai Sensei. so was Dick. When we practiced at MIT, I guess you could say that we were channeling Kanai Sensei in many ways. It was different; Dick had different emphasis and different techniques that he did. First and foremost, it was definitely channeling Kanai Sensei and passing that on by how we learned it, internalized it, and presented it. It’s obviously different; we weren’t Kanai Sensei. I would say that Kanai Sensei was the most physically gifted of the uchi deshi of his generation. His Aikido was impeccable. But practicing with Dick at the MIT dojo, I often started teaching there not long after. The difference was that I was teaching.

I don’t know if you teach, but in order to progress as an Aikidoka, you really need to start teaching at some point. It helps you understand your own Aikido; it helps you learn what it takes to transmit that to somebody else. I think that was, for me, practicing at the MIT dojo, it was much smaller – not a lot of people practicing. In the early days, MIT was very open – all kinds of people came from the outside. People came from the New England Aikikai to practice with us. We would hold seminars. It was very small and an intimate kind of practice. Dick was very open to all kinds of ways to practice and people. He was very inviting. One thing about Dick was that he was a very outgoing and social person. He really had a unique viewpoint in life. It’s hard to explain but he was really able to understand people quite well. I think he understood me better than I understood myself! [Laughs] He would tell my wife things that would make me go, “Oh geez!” [Laughs] He was friends with my wife too. I met my wife practicing Aikido.

The word charisma comes up. Dick had charisma; he attracted people. He always had an entourage, frankly. [Laughs] Everybody knew Dick, not only people in Aikido, but everywhere you went. If you were in Boston, everybody knew Dick! [Laughs] Dick was a charismatic person in a much different way than Kanai Sensei. Kanai Sensei was charismatic. Maybe it was because of the mystery of where he was, a Japanese teacher with this somewhat esoteric martial art, possessing some sort of esoteric knowledge that he would pass on to others, but he was certainly not charismatic in the same sense that Dick was. Dick knew the American way in the vernacular. Kanai Sensei obviously didn’t – he learned that over time. He was Japanese in his being. At that time, a lot of people were interested in things Japanese in the early 1970s. I think that’s what attracted people to it. For myself, I was interested in Zen – that was my original interest. Then when I first met Kanai Sensei, I asked him what’s the relationship between Zen and Aikido. He said, “Oh, they help each other,” along with, “You practice!” [Laughs]

To be a shodan was a big deal back in those days. Because there weren’t many yudansha, if they were, they were probably shodan. That was pretty much the extent of it.

MAYTT: How did Stroud blend his outgoing and extrovert personality with his instruction? What was Stroud like as an instructor and a person?

MB: He would bring people into Aikido quite a lot. He would get people interested in Aikido and get them to practice. His instruction was actually quite traditional in many ways. He would demonstrate the technique and have people practice and watch their practice. He would make corrections. It was a standard kind of pedagogical teaching method that we learned from Kanai Sensei basically. That’s what I think; similar to the way I teach as well.

I mean, he would watch people, see what they’re doing. Kanai Sensei – he was funny – he would watch you and then he would walk away. [Laughs] And not say anything. I think that was maybe the Japanese way. I think they tend not to be very vocal oftentimes. I know Kanai Sensei was a deep thinker about Aikido, I know that for a fact. But as far as Dick’s teaching style, he would demonstrate, let people practice; he would watch people, he would make corrections as necessary, I would say.

MAYTT: Going off of that, how did you see Stroud’s teaching style change as time went on?

MB: I mean, as we all tend to get older, we soften up. The more that I think about it, I think he emphasized more of the yin than the yang. In other words, I think maybe when he was younger, he threw harder, let’s put it that way. Because the throwing part of the technique is really the yang portion of the technique, where oftentimes, you would throw just like in a cut in suburi or any kind of cut with a sword, where the cut is the out breath. I think that definitely softened with time. There was more emphasis on the yin portion with the entrance and the expansion – the in breath.

MAYTT: That also seems like it is a trend with a lot of the people I talked with too. It is a natural progression because that was also the way O-Sensei went, so it is almost like an unconscious way of thinking or mimicking the same path that O-Sensei did.

MB: Yeah. I think that also when you get older, you realize that having direct confrontation – clash against clash – doesn’t work. I mean, it never works. That’s not what Aikido is about. It’s more important to understand the entering into a technique and expanding. I think I saw Dick’s technique change in that way as well, as I see my technique moving more towards that.

Dick was very strong. [Laughs] He was not a big person, but he was very strong. I think when you practiced with him, you realized what his strength was and that his strength was there.

MAYTT: Speaking of training, how have you seen Aikido training as a whole change since you started to today?

MB: How things changed? Well, first of all, there’s somewhat of a crisis in Aikido, at least in America, where it’s aging so to speak. I started back in the days when it was kind of the hippie days and other things like that – that was in the atmosphere, the environment, and everything around us – people were interested in spiritual practices. To that extent, having people interested in things other than winning and losing has changed, but I get the feeling that it’s starting to come back with younger people.

One thing I can say about the change in actual practice is ukemi. We used to take breakfalls – breakfalls used to be hard breakfalls. They were always hard breakfalls. Then as time went on, and I don’t know where it started – it may have started with New England Aikikai, I’m not sure – the so-called “soft feather fall” started to take over more. It had to because it’s not good for your body to be taking those hard breakfalls. That’s become standard practice now. That was definitely different from the early days in the 1970s because that just didn’t even exist. When I learned breakfall, it was hard breakfall. [Laughs] So, that’s one big change, physically. As far as the actual practice goes, the techniques are the techniques, and each teacher has their own interpretation of it. The techniques themselves are codified in the basic sense. Again, they’re variations and all teachers have variations and variations are encouraged in Aikido. Creativity is encouraged in Aikido. Getting into the inside of what’s happening in the technique – your position and so on. I think it’s matured. When I started practicing, there were not a great number of yudansha at that time. That’s the big difference. Thereby the quality and practicing more with experienced students who are your contemporaries increased.

MAYTT: I see. Stroud founded the MIT Aikido Club in 1978. To your knowledge, what influenced him to establish a club at the university?

MB: That’s a good question. I know he was teaching art there. Perhaps, I’m just speculating, he was talking to people, again, being the charismatic person that he was, he started talking to them about Aikido and then they became interested, and they were students. Perhaps it would be less intimidating to have them start at a club at school rather than to go right to New England Aikikai. I’m speculating, but that might be the case. I can say this: over the years, the club has produced many yudansha who have spread out. They eventually leave school and teach elsewhere. But what really motivated him to start that, I don’t know. I honestly never really had a conversation with him about it. It was there. He just did it. It was part of his DNA – who he was. Because he started another dojo in Jamaica Plain. I forget what year as well. Again, to spread Aikido and make it easier for people to practice probably.

MAYTT: I’m not that familiar with the Boston area. Where abouts is Jamaica Plain?

MB: It’s one of the neighborhoods in Boston. I mean, Boston is really a city of neighborhoods. It’s spread out. It’s probably just south of the downtown area. He lived around there, so I think that was one of the reasons he started the dojo down there.

MAYTT: So, he taught at both the MIT club and the one in Jamaica Plain?

MB: That’s right. When I started practicing at the club, I had shodan or nidan, so there were nights where I would teach, and Dick might teach over in Jamaica Plain. At one point, we had at least fifteen students at a time at the club. The roster has shrunk over the years. I don’t know what to ascribe it to, but the interest in the martial arts and the “esoteric” practices – though I don’t consider Aikido to be esoteric myself [Laughs] – that general interest in the public started to wane in the 1980s, a bit of the 1990s, and especially in the turn of the millennium.

I don’t know if you saw the article in the New York Times in the last week [middle of July] about a female medic in Ukraine? It was interesting; she was a medic, and she was working with the soldiers. She practiced Aikido. It mentioned that in the article but didn’t talk too much about it. I actually wrote a letter to the Times about it, but I don’t think it got published. She got captured – that is the thing. She was in Mariupol. She was captured by the Russians and held in captivity for about three months and treated pretty poorly. Probably tortured, psychologically and, to a certain extent, physically. She credited her Aikido with being able to survive that. She was released – there was some sort of prisoner exchange, and she was released recently. It said as a trained medic, she said something interesting as she was treating people; there was a Russian soldier in the care of the Ukrainians, and he was freezing. She said, “Can somebody get a blanket for him?” The other Ukrainians asked why she did that and she replied, “I treat everybody the same.” Just an aside, but I wrote about that [how Aikido can be beneficial in daily life] and Putin practices judo and I said that he obviously didn’t learn the right lessons from martial arts! [Laughs]

But it was an interesting article. It goes back to what I was saying about being in the popular culture, you don’t hear much about Aikido in the popular culture anymore. Part of that is, you have to have some kind of appeal. Back in the early days, it was just in the air. It was just natural. I think, maybe, that’s changing. Since I’m an instructor, I know we’ve not had summer camp since before the pandemic, but we had meetings at summer camp and were talking about how the population of Aikido is aging and how to attract younger people. It’s a real problem. But interestingly, with MIT we suspended practices in March 2020, and we just started back in practices this spring [2022]. It’s been tough but we had a lot of inquiries last fall [2021] when people came back from school. It was encouraging. A lot for us is about five, but it was good! [Laughs]

MAYTT: Any number at this point, I would assume, is good.

MB: Yes. They tried to look for us and look at the club website – the one that you went to – and they would contact us and we would tell them about practice and so on and so forth. Sometimes they show up, sometimes they don’t. but we’re back in practice and I hope when more students show up to school in September, there will be greater interest. So, perhaps, there’s something coming back in that regard. Times are more and more fraught and people, I think, are going to look for something more as a way to understand the universe – let’s put it that way. [Laughs] and maybe Aikido is one of those ways.

MAYTT: Since you bring up the future of the club, what are some of the club’s plans to expand in the wake of the receding pandemic?

MB: One way is that there’s a Japan program at MIT and get in touch with those folks. What I want to do is invite them to an open practice. What they do is have the students in the program for a period of time and then have them go to Japan to study. I’ve spoken to the administrator about it, and she’s interested in it. She lived in Japan, and I think she practiced Aikido there, so she was familiar with that. It’s interesting; I reached out to other people I know, people who teach theater arts at MIT to get some of those folks to come to practice. There is a relationship, I think, between that kind of physical contact and interaction and people who are interested in theater. I was an actor many years ago, so I feel that there is a natural interest there, potentially. And this fellow who is the assistant chaplain, who I think is fairly new – he would have contacts too. So that’s where we try to get it out. Put posters up and so on and so forth.

I’m hoping to build up the dojo again. Clearly, with schools, people graduate; they leave and go elsewhere. Graduate students practice with us more often than undergraduates. And at MIT, the undergraduates, someone described it as opening up a firehose and drowning you with it. [Laughs] At MIT, the amount of work that they give you there, especially for undergraduates, it’s tough for them. So, I thought of having Saturday practices because I thought people would have more time on Saturdays. Those are the different ways we are doing that.

Sometimes we have alumni train with us. They would go away for a job, then come back for another job and join us for practice. and we have some people who join us by joining the gym at MIT or pay a day pass to get in. In the early days, MIT was wide open – anybody could walk in. people, in general, were less concerned about stuff coming in from the outside back then. We had anybody come in for practice from anywhere. Oftentimes, Dick would recruit people, being the charismatic person that he was. After a while, the school closed that down and now people have to go through a gate and desk to get to the dojo and they question you. You have to buy a day pass, at least, to get in. before, it really didn’t cost anybody anything. But those times have changed. MIT wanted the gym to be more focused towards either a) students or b) those that have gym memberships. So, we have a couple of people who have gym memberships that aren’t directly affiliated with MIT that practice with us. Either way “You practice!” [Laughs]

MAYTT: Going back a bit, how did Stroud keep the club and Aikido a relevant activity on the campus during the decades he was in charge?

MB: We always had a regular cadre of people practicing with us. It was really the students he had in his art classes and then word of mouth. There’s a [non-profit research and development] company that is kind of associated with MIT called Draper Labs; there was someone who worked there for many years that practiced and he was the dojo-cho. I think it was just word of mouth mostly. Again, back in those days, people were more interested and more curious about it. You have to have that basic curiosity to start.

MAYTT: Around what time did you take over club and teaching responsibilities? How did the students respond to the transition of instructors?

MB: I taught there for many years, but Dick was head of the dojo. When Dick died – he died in 2014 – I basically took over as chief instructor. I was the senior person practicing then. I had seniority in Aikido as well, in terms of my years practicing. So, 2014 I just took over that. It was a hard act to follow. Dick certainly had people who were loyal to him so there was a parting of the ways with some folks. Which is fine because that’s what happens.

In Aikido, even after Kanai Sensei died, there was a fracturing of the dojo. People went off and founded their own dojos. For a long time, they had an affiliation with New England Aikikai; some of them founded dojos before Kanai Sensei passed away but they were always affiliated with him – they wouldn’t dare strike out on their own. [Laughs] After Kanai Sensei passed away in 2004, there was a fracturing. It happens. The same thing happened when O-Sensei passed away – there was kind of a fracturing. His students started to go their own way and started to do different things.

One of the issues we had at MIT – have you heard of Kokikai?

MAYTT: Yes, yes, I have.

MB: I don’t know much about them. They founded a club at MIT and at first, they called themselves Kokikai and I didn’t know what that was and didn’t know who they were. Then, after a time, they started calling themselves Kokikai Aikido, so we had this confusion with people who didn’t understand the difference between one school or another. We’re associated with the United States Aikido Federation. So, it was kind of confusing and kind of watered down the pool, so to speak, of people who were interested. I don’t know where they’re at now – I don’t know if they’re still around or what the story is.

MAYTT: Did your club and the Kokikai club have any interaction?

MB: We had some interaction, but it was decided that they would just do their own thing, as with us. I don’t know what their status is currently. But it wasn’t good for us, with the watering down of people who wanted to practice Aikido. There are other martial arts clubs that we get along with fine. Now there are some people who are practicing Iwama style, but I consider them to be cousins. We’re thinking about getting together because it’ll be greater numbers for us – help them as well and help us. Morihiro Saito Sensei, it was his mission to preserve the techniques as he learned them from O-Sensei. That’s great, as far as I’m concerned. He actually codified some of the weapon practices as well. Because weapons practice is very open to a lot of interpretation by teachers. Saito Sensei said that he was teaching what he learned from O-Sensei. We do weapons too, with the more advanced students as well. To me, it informs the Aikido, especially the bokken to a great extent. The movements are important to teach them as people get further on.

MAYTT: Also, how did that added layer of obligations when you took over the club change your perspective on Aikido, if at all?

MB: Honestly, it didn’t. I feel obligated to revive the club, frankly. It was more since the pandemic that I wanted to get things back on track. I can’t say before that; I was teaching before anyway. It really didn’t change anything for me really. But since the pandemic and coming out of Covid that I feel a real responsibility to get the club back on track.

MAYTT: Final question. With more than forty years in Aikido in the New England region, what do you feel are Stroud’s major contributions to both the regional and larger Aikido community?

MB: he produced at least ten black belts and really made Aikido alive for many people, probably hundreds. I would think that’s his major contribution to Aikido in the region. I think that that’s it – spreading Aikido. And he was very successful at that. Eventually, when he became shihan, he was able to give yudansha, particularly shodan and nidan tests. Originally, we had to test at New England Aikikai or at summer camp – people who were getting their shodan – and there were quite a few; at least ten. That’s a pretty good track record considering it was a school club. They are all around the country and I think many of them are still practicing.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk about your friendship with Stroud Sensei!

MB: It was my pleasure.

To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.

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