Interview with Hanshi Lou Angel

Interview with Hanshi Lou Angel

by Janet Tilden
June 2005

During a martial arts career that spans more than 50 years, Hanshi Lou Angel has witnessed massive change. 'The martial arts have come a long way in this country," says Angel. 'Forty years ago there was hardly a tournament to go to. Now you can find three or four every weekend. It's amazing how big it grew; it just exploded."

Angel's martial arts organization, the National College of Martial Arts International (NCMA), was established more than 15 years ago in Joplin, Missouri. Today, it has grown to the point where it is international in scope. 'At our annual tournaments we have people coming from as far away as Austria and Iran," he commented. 'Some of them go to only one tournament a year, and this is the one they pick."

In the early years of Hanshi Angel's career, promotion to the highest ranks was limited to elderly Asian men. 'In the old days, it was unusual for a young man to be promoted to Seventh Dan (Seventh Degree Black Belt)," Angel recalls. 'In fact, in the old days if you were Caucasian you wouldn't be promoted past second degree. Then the martial arts became more powerful in the United States and the rank opened up. I stayed at fourth degree for 20 years. Today people can advance all the way to ninth degree and sometimes tenth degree. It gives encouragement not only to the teacher, but to his students."

Within the martial arts belt-ranking system, attaining Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Dan is equivalent to earning a Ph.D. in the world of academia, according to Peter Urban, teacher of Lou Angel and author of The Karate Dojo: Traditions and Tales of a Martial Art. These ranks are designated as 'kyoshi" grade, a term that means 'wizard," or very high master. Few instructors reach this level in a single martial art, but as of June 29, 2005, Christopher Geary had attained the level of Seventh Dan (Shichidan/Nanadan) in one system and Sixth Dan (Rokudan) in two additional systems (Tenshi Goju Kai and Karazenpo Go Shinjutsu).

Hanshi Angel has been Christopher Geary's trusted advisor and mentor for several years. After hearing good things about Angel and his organization, Geary drove down to Joplin with Shihan Shawn Steiner to meet Hanshi Angel in person. Looking back on that initial meeting, Angel recalls being impressed with Geary's ability and motivation. 'After talking with him and looking at him, I decided he was under-ranked for the time he had spent in the martial arts. He was a First Dan, and I moved him up to a Third Dan. He asked me to be his advisor in his martial arts career. I was glad to accept, and we've had a really good relationship over the years. He's a good technician and a good businessman. He knows what he's doing with his schools."

Single-minded devotion to excellence allowed Geary to advance rapidly in his martial arts career. In June 2005, Hanshi Lou Angel promoted Professor Christopher Geary to the rank of Seventh Dan. Angel explains, 'After Fifth or Sixth Dan, promotion is based on what they're doing with their students, running the school, supporting the organization, keeping up with the martial arts. People can't progress just by sitting behind a desk. A lot of people say, 'He's kind of young to be promoted to Seventh Dan,' but my response is, 'Well, are you going to wait until he's a hundred years old?' In my opinion, people make these kinds of comments because they're jealous. They're still teaching two or three students out of their garage, and they haven't made as much progress as Chris because they don't have the same level of ability or commitment that he has. I promote people because they deserve to be promoted. In the old days you had to be about 80 to reach Seventh Dan, and they'd bring you out in a wheelchair and say, 'Here you go.' What good did it do the students? Chris is in the prime of his life. He's at a time where he's in good shape and studies and works hard. Getting promoted to Seventh Dan not only recognizes what he has accomplished but also gives the people in his organization a chance to move up."

Respect between student and instructor is a hallmark of the martial arts, but Angel noted, "The instructor can't just say, 'Hey, you! Come here and bow to me.' The instructor has to earn the respect of his students, and Chris has done that."

Professor Geary holds Hanshi Lou Angel in high esteem. Geary notes, 'Nothing in the world can beat experience—nothing. It's not only that I'm getting this rank but who I'm getting it from. Hanshi Angel has been an inspiration to me, and I feel lucky to be a member of NCMA. He started training in the martial arts in Brooklyn back in 1954. A few years later he moved to the Midwest and brought the martial arts to a part of the U.S. where it had never been before. Starting from the ground up, he built up his organization to an international level. Being promoted by someone of Hanshi Angel's stature is truly an honor."