The History of Okinawan Shuri-te Karate in Minnesota
By David Graf
About 1968 some friends of mine called to say that there was a person teaching Karate at the downtown YMCA in St. Paul and asked would I like go with them to take the class. I went with them and found a Brown Belt teaching. I don’t remember the name of the instructor or of the style.
That class lasted for about six months, at which point the instructor said he could not teach us anymore because he’d already taught all he knew.
About three weeks later, Mr. Mach from the YMCA called me and said that there was a Karate person working out in the gym. I told him to get this person’s name and phone number. It was Robert Billington, who had just returned from Okinawa where he had studied under Ankichi Nakamura .
Robert was the first non-Okinawan to study Shuri-te. He went to Nakamura’s dojo for six months asking to be taught, before he was finally accepted. He began his training and two years later he was promoted to Shodan.
Robert began teaching a Karate class at the downtown St. Paul YMCA in 1968. We had large classes of 30-40 students in those days.
I was the first student that Sensei Billington promoted to shodan. That was February 15, 1970. In the following years, Robert promoted several other students to dan ranks including: Skip Sommerhouse, Ray Hernandez, Richard Schmidt, Al Loescher, Bill Mueller, Pat Jones, Maria Fuentez, Greg Fenton, Dean Lillie, Alex Ramiriz, John Sausen, Chris Gardner, Pete Peterson, Rick Keenan and Jerry Casey.
In 1983, the Black Belts in the club decided to form an Association in order to promote, preserve and advance the study of Okinawan Shuri-te Karate in Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, for personal reasons, Mr. Billington decided to leave Minnesota and move to Wisconsin.
I wrote to Sensei Nakamura at that time and informed him about Robert leaving. Sensei Nakamura wrote back and appointed me Director of the Association in Minnesota. Robert Billington was appointed Director of the Wisconsin Association and Bill Mueller (who had moved to Texas) was appointed Director of the Texas Shuri-te Association.
Over the years, we have kept our link to Okinawa alive. Sensei Nakamura has visited Minnesota several times, including trips in 1977, 1985, 1991 and 1999. Several Minnesota students have made trips to Okinawa, some for extended periods of time. Bill Mueller lived in Okinawa for a year in 1979. Jim Noah spent several years living in Okinawa and mainland Japan. Many other Minnesota students have gone to Okinawa to train with Sensei Nakamura. Some students have made several trips including: Tom Schibilla, Virgil Callin, Alex Ramirez, Dean Lillie and Jose Winkels.
More recently Minnesota students have traveled to Texas to train with Bill Mueller and Bill Mueller has traveled to Minnesota to teach seminars for Minnesota students.