Meet the Sensei

You measure the success of a good martial arts instructor by the success of their students. 

(An open letter to my Sensei)

Dear Sensei, I found this picture of us from 1984, which was taken not long after my black belt promotion.  Even though I am just one of your many students I wanted to make sure you could see what you did from the perspective of that 18 year old kid who took the black belt you awarded him and created a life.

I can remember going to some tournaments and finding out after the fact that as a green belt I was sparring against green belts in Isshin-ryu who had brown or black belts in other styles.  I see now why tournament success wasn’t big on your agenda.  Even though I managed a few trophies, I think the sparring we did in our own class was much better training, as you made sure we all had each other’s best interest and learning at heart.


After DeKalb I went to Cal State Long Beach where I earned by degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cal State University at Long Beach.   I can remember going out to the field to do my katas, and even found some sparring partners who were also away from their dojo.

I also received my commission as a 2nd Lieutenant (US Army) and was promoted up to Captain with time as the Unit Commander of a 400 bed evacuation hospital before I left the Army.  I have a distinct memory of practicing katas in the Alaska wilderness while at Northern Warfare School.





Besides continuing to train with other martial artists I could find when away from my home dojo, I also took up triathlons for a while.  This picture was after the ocean swim at San Clemente where unexpected weather made the water so choppy even the pros had to backstroke.  I was in the water for 50 minutes where I found having a little inner strength and discipline to take it one stroke at a time got me out of the water without swallowing too much of it. :-)

I started running marathons after an ROTC instructor informed us that we would be volunteered to help with crowd control unless we were going to run the marathon.  (He thought he was joking) I had never run that far before, but I told myself, if I could get a black belt, I could do this too, I just needed to train for it like anything else.  That’s me beating the ROTC instructor at the line, which meant the cadre had to buy the beer for the cadets that year.







Then I met my wife, moved to San Francisco and bought a home.





The Natural Law Party asked me to run for congress to get some ideas into the political discussion, like supporting programs that have demonstrated efficacy. (As in doing what works)  It wasn’t something I had ever considered, but hey, if I could get my black belt, how hard  could it be?  I just needed to collect enough signatures.   As I later found out, I live in Nancy Pelosi’s district, so winning wasn’t really an option.  We didn’t really have the budget to go for the win anyway, but I received more votes than I can account for from family and friends.  :-)

My wife and I started raising a family, and my kids seem to be doing well.  I try to be objective about how they are doing, and they still make me proud, so I can’t really ask for much more.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted some your best lines I remember from class, like Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.”



I started my own software company (See ) after being laid off when we had that downturn back in 2000.  I had never started a company before, and now had to do it fast enough to start making money before we lost the house.  I was one of your black belts, and if I could do that, I could do this.   I had to teach myself how to write software so that I could help smaller companies meet ISO, FDA, and other regulatory requirements.

It’s been 12 years now, and we are still going strong.  I think of my katas when I’m writing code, since each step of a user’s experience with a software application is a lot like stinging together martial art techniques that require the proper sequence and balance to work with the physics of the human anatomy.

Recently I added Bikram Yoga to my training routine.  I must say, Bikram Yoga and Isshin-ryu go very well together and I can see parallel concepts in both movement and breathing between the two.

I’m also a licensed soccer coach here in San Francisco with the Viking and PAL league, one of those little rascals is my son.  I can remember you saying once in class when you were coaching your son’s baseball team that in a way you were also teaching them Isshin-ryu.  I didn’t get it then, but I get it now. :-)  There are a lot of parallels between sparring and dribbling a soccer ball.

At 47 I can look back I and safely say that this is only a short list of the ways in which being one of your black belts has affected the course of my life.   If I had to choose between my college degree and your black belt, it would take me a long time to come to that decision.    It has truly been a foundational aspect of my sense of self and something I value greatly.    It has recently occurred to me that I now have what I need to create that experience for others, which is my primary goal as an instructor.

As I prepare to do this I am acutely aware of what you did for me through your class, by showing up for all those years, for planning each class, for passing on what you learned from Master Shimabuku, and for teaching what you continued to learn in your own practice.  If I can be just half the teacher you are, I will consider myself very successful.

For all you’ve done for me, and for all your students, I just wanted to make sure that the following words made it somewhere on the Internet for all to see.

Thank you.


4 Responses to “Meet the Sensei”

  1. Ezra Epstein Says:

    Wow. Dear David, I find your sharing this part of your story profoundly touching. The connection, the courage, your appreciation of both, and the continuity, which might mean the fresh application of it in life, is both touching and inspiring.

    Thank you.


  2. Ezra Epstein Says:

    Even though I’m not in San Francisco, I see I am learning from you.

  3. Sensei Says:

    Thanks for the kind words Ezra. I must admit my decision to start teaching has kicked off my own learning curve that I am enjoying immensely.

    In fact, I know that you are pretty smart guy. While I appreciate the credit, I know the learning you do is mostly coming from you. :-)

  4. Tom Scott Says:

    Sensei Smith, I remember sparring with you when I joined Master Kussro”s Isshin-Ryu class back in the early 80″s when I had just joined the Sycamore PD. Great fun and great learning! We all missed your talent and example when you moved on. Nice true words about our Sensei! Best wishes in your continued journey. Tom Scott–fellow blackbelt of the Isshin-Ryu.

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