The class lined up in staggered formation in the martial arts studio’s gym, called a dojo.
Synchronized, the five karate students practiced a series of simple offensive and defensive movements. They bowed, crossed their hands briefly in front of their bodies, placed their feet shoulder width apart while uncrossing their now fisted hands and together said, “Kihon kata.”
In the next moment, they forcefully pivoted to the left and smartly raised a defensive arm up to protect the head. Then they lunged forward and punched.
For the next half-minute or so, the class alternated steps forward or to the side while either punching or blocking. They were learning the basics of karate from Garrison Wells, who holds black belts of varying degrees in four martial arts disciplines, at his new school in Washburn.
Wells teaches Nihon jujitsu, a form of grappling or wrestling, and judo, a jujitsu-based fighting style samurai warriors perfected for fighting when unhorsed by their enemies.
The third discipline he teaches — goju rya — needs no introduction to people who have watched “The Karate Kid,” a 1984 movie starring Pat Morita as martial arts teacher Mr. Miyagi.
The fictional martial arts master was based on goju rya founder Chojun Miyagi, who taught the “wax on, wax off” basics. It’s a hard-core discipline developed by disarmed Okinawans to defend themselves after the Japanese occupied their islands, Wells said.
“Karate was survival back then,” he said.
Also on the school’s syllabus are lessons in the martial arts weaponry discipline called kobudo.
Wells started to study the martial arts in Japan as a youth. His father was stationed on a U.S. Air Force base there, and his mother was half Japanese, half Swedish.
When the base opened its gates to Japanese visitors once a week, Yoshio Watanabe, a martial arts sensei, or teacher, stayed with Wells’ family and sparked the military brat’s lifelong love affair with karate and judo.
Watanabe took Wells under his tutelage and the young student also attended a kodokan, a school for studying judo where students must fight everyone who attends that day. Sometimes, Wells would face 20 opponents.
“And every one of them beat me because every one of them was better than me,” he said. It was a way to humble new students.
Wells grew to become a journalist, working as writer, photographer, editor and columnist at several different newspapers throughout the U.S., although he took some time outs to run his own businesses, including his first dojo in Colorado.
As a certified martial arts instructor he taught self-defense classes for women in several states, troubled Native American boys in Michigan and disadvantaged youth in Tennessee.
Rough and tough guys kicked out of school because of behavioral issues bonded in classes and learned self-discipline, he said. They behaved for Wells because they didn’t want to get expelled from the dojo.
Live Oak Center
Six months ago Wells and his wife, Laura, pulled up stakes from Colorado and arrived in Wisconsin so she could take up a new job as a Memorial Medical Center ER and urgent care nurse practitioner.
The couple chose Wisconsin because they wanted snow and they wanted it cold — and they got their wish.
“We just didn’t realize how much snow and cold it would be,” he laughed. They have since learned to wear gloves when shoveling snow so they don’t get frostbite.
Deciding to retire from journalism, Wells opened Live Oak Center for Martial Arts and Healing at 320 Superior St. with his wife, a blue belt in goju ryu and assistant instructor.
Classes are open to all ages, but Wells’ rule decrees parents must accompany children who attend. He may set aside a day in the future to teach youth, who catch on quickly but are more difficult to instruct.
The five students who attended his class Wednesday were adults and came from a variety of professions, from cyber security to bartender to physical therapist.
Samantha Oliphant, who began classes four months ago, said learning self-defense and to focus on the moment spurred her in part to try out martial arts.
When in the dojo everyone’s mind is on what they are doing, not on what’s happening outside, she said.
Seniors also are welcome. Wells said his wife will usually check their health, and he plans to teach tai chi and maybe even reiki through CORE.
Part Cherokee, Wells also hopes to continue working with Native Americans on Chequamegon Bay reservations.
Anyone who is interested in joining Wells’ classes at Live Oak Center for Martial Arts and Healing may email him at email@example.com. The first two classes are free, and he can supply students with their karate uniform, called a gi.