With bows and a traditional cry, Lowell Cherry, Jr., begins his martial arts class in the gymnasium of Glenwood Lutheran Church, where the sounds of choir practice can be heard in the distance.
First come warm-ups: the legs, then the knees, then the hips. An hour and a half lesson follows: flips, falls, and blocks, as well as simulated attacks.
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“How you guys feel?” Mr. Cherry boomed as the kids pause for a break.
“Good, Sensei!” they shouted back.
On a sunny afternoon, four students participated in the class — normally about 15 show up. But Mr. Cherry said he doesn’t care about the numbers. One summer, back in Connecticut, his dojo, or studio, had a single student.
Mr. Cherry has taught classes locally for six years now. Glenwood Lutheran, the church where he was baptized, has become a second home.
But the road to the big gym with the bright blue mats at 2545 Monroe St. was not easy for him.
A Hartford native, Mr. Cherry grew up in the projects. He flew to Vietnam in 1969 to serve in the 101st Airborne Division, where he said the lessons he learned about character and strength stay with him to this day.
“The ‘tough’ guys are the ones that grab on you in the foxhole calling for their mother,” he said of the war.
When he returned to the states, Mr. Cherry spent three years as a touring percussionist. His parents looked after his children, sensing he needed a break.
Then it was time to head home. At that point, Mr. Cherry said, he knew he wanted some way to bond with his kids. He also needed a way to process his experience in Vietnam.
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He found both of those things in jukido jujitsu, a style of martial arts founded by Paul Arel in 1959. Mr. Cherry started classes in 1972 and never looked back.
By 1975 he had earned his black belt and began teaching courses at a youth center in Willimantic, Conn. For more than two decades he taught classes across the state, balancing them with day jobs building airplanes and submarines.
Mr. Cherry quickly earned the respect of the International Kokondo Association, the organization that oversees the practice of jukido jujitsu and kokondo, its sister style of karate. Now a fourth-degree black belt, Mr. Cherry is one the organization’s chief instructors. He received its Master Longo Award in 2013, which recognized his service to the community.
Greg Howard, the kaicho, or chief, of the International Kokondo Association, said that Mr. Cherry’s care for individual students sets him apart from other teachers. Mr. Cherry can “reach into his bag of tricks and pull out the way” a student will learn best, Mr. Howard said.
In 2001, Mr. Cherry moved to Toledo, where he began holding classes in a basement. The church came later, after lessons inside local schools and even on the street.
The Glenwood classes, which are held three times a week, are free. Mr. Cherry welcomes everyone: shy kids, kids with no experience, kids with disabilities. He said he likes to look for the best in all his students.
Brian McCarty’s children, Peter, 10, and Maura, 9, have been attending the Glenwood lessons for four months.
“Peter’s just so happy here,” Mr. McCarty said as he watched Thursday’s class. Peter is autistic, and the classes have helped him practice coordination, self-control, and socializing with his peers.
The sensei has big plans for the future of his dojo. His students marched in the Old West End Festival parade, and Toledo will host an international martial arts conference in 2016.
And later this year Mr. Cherry hopes to earn his fifth-degree black belt.
For him, it’s just leading by example. At the end of Thursday’s lesson he encouraged his students to set their goals — in karate and in life — as high as possible.
“By going straight and not being distracted at the sides, you’ll be fine,” he told them.
The lessons Mr. Cherry preaches in his classes have rubbed off on Iesha Matthews, 12, a Glenwood martial arts student and Mr. Cherry’s granddaughter. Now a blue belt, she’s found a lot to love about martial arts, like kicking the tall punching bag against the wall and learning more about self-defense.
But for her, the best part about having her grandfather as a teacher is simple.
“I get to practice at home,” she said with a smile.
Contact Marissa Medansky at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6368.