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Ed Roberts, Activist

Tony Johnson, 10/9/1939 - 12/12/2017

A Tribute to Ed Roberts' Karate Instructor, by David Goode

Tony Johnson

Of all the people I have encountered, Tony Johnson is one of the most enigmatic. If a movie were made about Tony's life, most of us wouldn't believe it.

Ed Roberts introduced me to him in the early 1990s, as his karate instructor. I had mentioned to Ed that I studied Shotokan karate and he had responded, "Me too." As Ed used a motorized wheelchair and portable air respirator, and could only move a few fingers of his left hand, I had difficulty taking his words on face value… at first.

Watch a Video of Ed Roberts' Karate Training >>

I met Tony at the World Institute on Disability in Oakland. At that time Ed and Judy Heumann ran WID from an old public school building in a very poor residential area of Oakland. Ed had mentioned that Tony would be at WID during one of my Bay Area visits and that I should come by to meet Tony.

I remember I was somewhat awed by the visuals of the encounter, Tony and Ed next to each other in Ed's office. Ed, as most readers will know, had childhood polio and post-polio syndrome, so his body had not grown to its genetically intended size and lacked musculature. He was quite small in stature and frail. Tony was standing next to his chair when I entered the office, and though Tony was not a very tall person, his body was, one might say, the opposite of Ed's. It had grown to a size that was far greater than genetics could have intended. He was massive – thick-necked, broad shouldered, immensely muscular armed and legged, with close cropped hair.

His physical demeanor suggested a sort of large wound up spring. He had a broad smile and friendly and extroverted manner, which did not conceal a substrate of anger. This was my first impression. Tony looked ex-military, which as it turned out, he was.

The physical contrast between these two friends could not have been greater, but what it hid from me at that time was what they shared – a great Bodhisattva spirit with which they devoted much of their lives to helping others. Both Tony and Ed were Bodhisattva warriors, each devoting himself in his own way to relieving the suffering of others, and each having a personal history of suffering that enabled this.

I got to know Tony more than casually, even taking a karate class with him and Ed. We hung out together on several occasions sharing personal assistant duties of Ed, especially on their visits to New York City. I drove him around New York a couple of times while he looked for students for The Challenge Foundation. So, for those of you who did not have the pleasure to meet Tony, and for those who do remember him, on the occasion of his death I will share a couple of hopefully revealing stories from these times.

Some readers will know about The Challenge Foundation, Tony's karate school.(It's not the one you get when Googling). When I met Tony in Oakland I observed a karate class, and Tony explained to me how and why he had formed it. Tony was a Vietnam veteran who had served several tours of duty in the Special Forces. Basically, thanks to the war he had become a highly trained killer, operating often alone or in small groups with a great degree of independence.

He called the regular conscripts "fodder" and kept clear of them, preferring to work on his own. One evening when he visited my family, ate a meal, drank some beers and was in unusually buoyant spirits, he shared some of this time with us, but only in a very general way. It was clear from what he did say that he had been through things, and done things, that most of us could not even imagine.

Tony had a very difficult childhood in the San Fernando Valley and he enlisted as soon as he was able as, in part, a way to escape his circumstances. He spent time in Vietnam expressing a deep anger that he brought there, and that anger came back home with him rather than having been dispelled. Tony once said to me, "When I got back from Vietnam things could have easily gone either way, bad or good. I felt like I could easily hurt people, but I knew I did not really want to. So I chose to help people and started the Foundation."

Tony decided to use his martial arts training to help people who were socially devalued or otherwise experiencing serious trouble in life. He began a karate school in which one could find students who were Vietnam veterans, gang members, persons with disabilities of all kinds including severe disabilities, poor people, and anyone else who wanted to study. Having observed a class, and then taken another, I can testify to their exceptional character.

Tony ran the classes the same way my Japanese sensei had in New York, like a family, based first and foremost on deep respect and concern for the teachers and students. It was this spirit of compassion and respect that was the key to Tony's classes. Gang members who thought they had it rough learned to respect and help young students who had quadriplegic cerebral palsy or who had severe autism. People with disabilities gained acceptance and capability with the help of the teachers and fellow students. Each student got what he needed, if I can be allowed gloss over some very complex things in this way. Watching or taking one of Tony's classes was a trip!

The class I took with Tony and Ed was actually held in New York City, on 23rd Street in Manhattan. I remember it was cold and I had packed my gi in my backpack. I also remember wondering how this was going to work with Ed, who again could only move a few fingers and his wheelchair. I recall changing with the mixed group of students, including some strong looking Black guys, and many people who had cerebral palsy. Some had uniforms, but most did not. 

Class was run traditionally. Saluting and bowing to the sensei, basic warm ups and stretching, kata (forms) and then fighting. I was assigned to help beginners and those with disabilities. I was near Ed during most of the class and took advantage of a good opportunity to observe him closely. Basically Ed followed instructions as best he could. During warm up he moved his chair back and forth, turned it around, and turning as he could. During kata, he moved his chair in the positional pattern that the form (white belt kata) required.

During fighting I assisted Tony by attacking Ed while he and Tony worked out ways to use the wheelchair in a defensive manner. When class was over Ed came off the mat, and he was perspiring profusely. Even though he was only moving a small part of his body, he got quite a workout. You could see most students felt great. They had enjoyed themselves and were in good spirits. A good karate instructor should be able to do that, and Tony was good.

One day Tony asked me to pick him up at the gym where he worked out and to drive him up to the Bronx. He wanted to go to a really tough, poor area, where there were gangs. I recall that at the gym he was working out with enormously heavy weights. Toe presses with 1200 pounds is the only particular one I remember now. At that point he must have been in his 40s and he looked incredibly strong, you know, indestructible. He had enormously big arms and chest and wore a tight white tee shirt.

I drove up to the Bronx, got off the cross Bronx Expressway in the southeast Bronx and proceeded to drive around until he said, "stop here." We were in front of a school yard in which was a large group of black guys. Without hesitation Tony jumped out of the car, walked up to them and introduced himself. "Hey, I am Tony Johnson. Really glad to meet you guys." I was in the car watching their incredulous responses. They looked at Tony, at each other, and you could see they did not know what to make of him. Within five minutes they were smiling, gathered around Tony and listening to him intently.

I believe he really was not afraid in that playground, or at least that he did not find in the situation anything that he felt threatened him in fact. He had complete confidence to take care of whatever might have evolved but also great conviction that through his genuine compassion and caring he would not need to "take care" of anything. 

I got out of the car, less bravely I admit. Tony was explaining to the group that he wanted to start karate classes for their kids. If they wanted, he could do that. He was asking them about their kids, what they were into, whether they had any hope, what they wanted in life, but also practical questions like where the schools were and whether there was space in the housing complex around us where he might be able to hold classes at night. We talked with these men for an hour or so. Tony took some telephone numbers, gave them his, and we left.

This was Tony. Fearless. Caring only for people. He used to comment about things like money and resources. "Don't care. They're only brick and mortar." Willing to do what needed to be done, for those most needing something to be done.

People like Tony and Ed were the backbone of the disability rights movement. Both had a certain kind of selflessness and commitment that is relatively rare, although not so much so that many of us have had experiences with similar people, I think Ed and Tony considered each other almost as brothers. They were so linked in my mind, that when Tony died I shared the news on a listserv on disability announcing that "Tony Roberts" had died. It was a Freudian slip. I guess in my mind both Ed and Tony were brother warriors.

It is said by Buddhists that other than the rare appearance of a Buddha, who does not re-enter cyclical existence after death, everyone will be reborn in another, good or bad, life. What happens when you die is a result of the accumulation of good and bad deeds done both in this and previous lives (karma). All people experience and embody the results of these accumulated merits and sins, and each time one is born to human existence an opportunity presents itself to improve, or regress, one's next incarnation. In these terms, I can have no doubt that both Ed and Tony accumulated great merit through their deep caring for and service to others. Tony's life was complicated, but much of it was lived in this way. 

These two friends karma was deeply intertwined in this life, and perhaps they will find each other again in some future one. 

David Goode
Watchung, New Jersey

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