I am mourning the loss of a most influential man in my life. David Gates. He was my friend, my Sifu and my Tai Chi instructor. There is no one I looked up to more than him. There is no one I know of who possessed the depth of knowledge of the human body like he did. He knew the ways of the West and the East. He was a was registered nurse and a licensed physical therapist. He was a Hung Gar Kungfu master and had a 6th degree blackbelt in Karate, a black belt in Kempo Karate and a black belt in Wada Ryu Karate. But he was really all about Kungfu and the Chinese Arts including acupuncture, Chinese Boxing, Qi-Gong and Tai Chi Chuan and that is what he taught…what he lived. After an appearance on Johnny Carson he was offered to go to Hollywood to make Kungfu movies. David had the talent and the good looks to be successful in film. But he declined. Despite his prowess as a martial artist he was humble and even shy outside his studio. He was a private person and a devoted family man and he declined the glamour of Hollywood. I don’t think he had an interest in being an actor portraying a Kungfu master. He wanted to BE a master.
I trained under David at two different points in my life, in my early 40s and then later again in my late 50s. David was 7 years my senior and in his prime when I first trained under him at his Dojo in Albion NY. It was called Charisma Il – The Academy of the Integrated Martial Arts. His Kungfu included the 5 animal system much like the Kungfu TV show from the 70s that had a big influence on me. David Carradine’s character was trained in Tiger/Dragon and David taught Tiger/Crane. The interior of his dojo was red with low light revealing interesting weapons hanging on the walls. The workout room was a former dance studio with a wall lined with mirrors so we could watch ourselves train. Everyone dressed in black which suited me just fine. In true Kungfu tradition David didn’t talk much. He led and we followed his moves. His dojo was strict with clear rules. Tai chi preceded the Kungfu classes. Warm ups and stretching preceded the Yang style tai chi that I was most interested in. David would perform tai chi while naming each form as he went along and we would follow. Then we would proceed to the Kungfu warm ups which were basically the same as Tai Chi only faster. He would say, “All right…two hundred pushups!. You know who you are,” and he would proceed to do the two hundred quick and easily. I managed to get up to 90 at one point but it was never easy. David at times seemed to not weigh anything as he lightly and energetically moved about. But during sparring you saw his speed and power in action and it was most impressive. I attended all classes beyond my level and never mastered any of them but I surely did learn. I was a single dad with little time to practice outside of class which is a must to advance. But the tai chi did stick. At one point David, along with his wife and daughter opened up a coffee shop in Albion called Kafana’s. I had several art shows there being that David and I had mutual respect for each other’s art. He was a fan of my art which meant the world to me.
I moved to Tennessee and it would be many years before I saw him again. While gone I spent time studying and reading about Tai chi and practicing what I could remember. The more I read the more I understood what he taught. When I returned to his dojo many things were different including the place which was on a different street and now called Phoenix Fitness Center. It had a full gym with equipment downstairs and upstairs was the dojo, his office and his acupuncture room. The format was similar as the old place with warmups and stretching followed by tai chi and then Kungfu or boxing. But David was different. The classes were smaller and he was more open and talkative and easy going. He laughed easily and expressed himself more. While still youthful in appearance and very energetic his body had taken a toll. It was mostly done to him by younger students trying use proof something to the master. After Tai chi he would ask the class of mostly younger students whether they wanted to practice boxing or Kungfu and to my chagrin they would choose boxing. They were more interested in mixed martial arts and fighting than learning an art. It is easy to find someone who teaches boxing and very difficult to find some one who teaches Kungfu. They just wanted to learn how to fight and Kungfu is more than that. To quote Jackie Chan, “Kung Fu lives in everything we do… It lives in how we put on a jacket and how we take off a jacket. It lives in how we treat people. Everything is Kung Fu. Being a nurse did its damage too. While lifting a patient he blew out his shoulder which never healed all the way leaving him unable to lift his right arm up very high. But he kept on plugging away as long as he could until one day the gym was closed without warning.
We kept in touch some and he was excited about my plans to turn the cobblestone into a place for people to practice tai chi. I formed a private club on facebook called “The Tai Chi Meetinghouse”of which only Dave and I were members with the plans to grow it from there. I will now open it up to others who ask. A one man club isn’t a club. There is an African saying that when an elder dies a library burns to the ground. In this case it was countless libraries. Besides the man, I mourn the loss of a most valuable resource. I rarely went to him for minor health issues but I knew he would be there if I did need him. It gave me a comfort that I no longer possess. I had plans for him in my life…things I wanted to ask…things I wanted to show him. But like his hero Bruce Lee said, “The problem is you think you have time.” I feel like an orphan who must carry on alone. I will try and make him proud. David did his job as a martial artist and as a man. He shared his knowledge and served his fellow man. I am glad he was part of my life and I will miss him as long as I live.