Most Thursday nights, Arthur Blair, 53, is on the mat at Green Hill Martial Arts in Killingworth, throwing around black belts and teaching them the intricacies of placing the body’s joints into locks that can either break a mugger’s bones or simply keep rowdy Uncle Charlie under control when he has had one-too many cocktails.
Blair is versed in several martial arts, but his core style is Chon-Tu Kwan, or “combat,” Hapkido, a no-nonsense system used solely for self-defense, never in sports competition. Besides joint locks, it uses multiple strikes and throws as well as subtle defensive hand techniques, many of which require extreme precision and manual dexterity. Blair’s skill is top shelf, but there are others who can claim an equal mastery of the art. What makes him and his approach to it special is that he has Parkinson’s disease (PD), a neurological disorder, progressive and incurable, resulting from degeneration of cells in the portion of the brain controlling movement. Tremors in arms and legs are the best known, but by no means only, symptoms, which range from depression and muffled speech to balance loss and muscle rigidity. More than a million Americans have PD, a fact recognized by Congress, which has designated April as Parkinson’s Disease Awareness month.
Blair’s body is bowed from the disease, stealing height from his five-feet-seven inches. He has lost 50 pounds from what was a massively muscled body. But when he takes a student weighing nearly 300 pounds effortlessly to the ground and clamps on a leg scissors, he seems like a giant.
More than two decades ago, Blair gave up a flourishing plumbing business to teach people how to defend themselves against adversaries intent on harming them, traditionally a risky business financially. Now he battles with an opponent so daunting, many victims simply surrender to it. So did Blair when, three years ago, his multiple health problems were finally diagnosed as PD. No longer could he cope with running a commercial school, which he had created in a converted three-car garage adjoining his home on Green Hill Road. The building had become something of a local landmark, where Blair met the District 17 school bus so that children could be dropped there for martial arts class.
“The school was my dream, my life,” says Blair, adding that he was losing the will to carry on. “I felt empty,” says Blair. A resurrection was in store for Blair. Rather than see the school disappear, his students banded together and converted it into a club, recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a full-fledged nonprofit educational organization. It is headed by two co-presidents. One is John Himmelman, an author and Illustrator of children’s books and books on natural history. The other, in interest of full disclosure, is the writer of this article, who also writes books, including those on natural history. Green Hill likely is the only martial arts school run by two nature authors. Students are members, not customers, and pitch in on work ranging from cleaning windows to fundraising. Parents of youth students regularly lend a hand.
Blair does not teach regular classes. Instead, he regularly trains his black belts, who are licensed instructors, so they transmit his knowledge to students, both children and adults. His high-ranking students are skilled enough to compensate for his occasionally physical lapses due to PD. His Thursday black belt class is so instructive, it attracts high-ranking martial artists from other disciplines, including some of world-class status. “I feel satisfied and proud of myself for being able to share my skills,” says Blair. He also keeps an eye on how students are progressing, advising instructors if he sees the need for improvement, and oversees tests for promotion and conducts seminars. In effect, he remains the spirit of the school.
In the minds of some students, Blair has reached a martial arts pinnacle, compensating for his physical problems by increasing his technique instead of muscle, something every martial artist seeks. “Every time I convince myself to stop being so surprised by some great technique he seemingly pulls out of the air, he manages to surprise me yet again,” says Himmelman.
Blair will not let the disease distract him from his Hapkido. “I ignore the disease,” he says, “I don’t dwell on it. I let my body think for itself and rely on inner energy.”
Blair’s battle against his disease is described as rather “unique and remarkable” by the Vice President, Scientific Affairs, Parkinson’s Disease Foundation Dr. Jim Beck. He adds, however, that many people with PD could follow Blair’s example but “are not doing it.” Beck says that by “still pursuing his passion,” by exercising and fighting to keep his focus, and by “maintaining a positive attitude,” Blair is setting an example that other patients should follow. For more information on Parkinson’s disease: The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation has a toll-free help line, 1-800-457-6676.