May 19, 2009

Dick Severance - a warrior fades into shadow

Dick Severance died the other day. He was a good man, a terrific practitioner, and a hell of a nice guy.

Never too busy for a question, always unhurried in his speech and action, Dick could walk you through the intricacies of Taijutsu, and layer it with some kernel of real-world experience. He was that guy.

I didn't know Dick nearly as well as I would have liked. We trained together on several occasions and I was always better for it. In 2005, I spent a weekend with him and Ed Martin teaching in central Illinois at "Bufest," an annual training camp. I had some severe back pain then and his measured advice made sense and I made very good use of it.

He will be missed.

Got this email earlier today:

Memorial Service to be held Saturday, May 23, 2009 at 2:00 PM at:
Palm Bay Funeral Home, 950 Malabar Drive SE, Palm Bay, Fl 32907

If you intend to forward flowers, please forward them to the funeral home. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be forwarded in Dick's name to:
Hacienda Girls Ranch, 326 Croton Rd, Melbourne, FL 32935 or Honor America (Liberty Bell Museum), 1601 Oak St, Melbourne, FL 32901. These are both groups which Dick has supported for many years.

A memorial seminar is being planned for Bujinkan members for later this fall. More information will be provided in the near future; if you would like additional information regarding this seminar, please contact Karl Koch (
or Jay Zimmerman (

Below are excerpts from a 2005 article I wrote after teaching at Bufest:

The Fest

The gravel road is quickly absorbed by the night and the trees around me grow taller and darker – I’m heading straight into the Midwestern sticks. I finally roll into Camp Cilca at about eight p.m. for “Bufest,” the annual three-day training camp held just outside of Springfield, Illinois. I have been invited by camp organizers Eric Strong and Angie Smith to teach alongside two highly respected and longtime Bujinkan martial arts association members: “Papa-san,” known to most as Ed Martin, and Dick Severance.

Bufest has taken place every year since 1999 and hosted by Martin and Severance, both exceptionally well-known and talented, each with more than 25 years of training under the tutelage of Soke Masaaki Hatsumi, grandmaster of the world’s only surviving schools of Ninjutsu. The camp is a first for me as a young instructor to “ante up” and demonstrate my own understanding beside two such well-known teachers, who will each express their own brand of wisdom to ensure a memorable weekend.

First Training

When I arrive, 60-something Martin, a retired commercial pilot, already has participants working up a sweat in the main lodge with what he affectionately calls Ojii-jutsu or “art of the old man.” Honestly, to say Ed moves like an old man is like saying Abe Lincoln wasn’t much of a speechwriter.

Ed’s walking everybody through the Kihon Happo, or “eight basic ways” – the foundational Taijutsu, literally “body art,” techniques of the Bujinkan. Clearly, he’s enjoying himself - the broad smile only one indication - his movement is the dead giveaway. Ed’s easy demeanor and gentle motions belay a brutal efficiency, one that can literally sweep you from your feet, a skill he gladly demonstrates on me several times.

As we work our way through Ed’s coaching and each technique – Mushadori to Musodori to Gansekinage – the room and its occupants remain under the vigilant eyes of Severance. Dick Severance, as many enjoy recounting, is a former UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) Frogman from the Korean War era - a Navy SEAL, before there were Navy SEALs, so to speak. Dick interjects comments only a few times to expose openings in what students think are their solid defenses. It is not uncommon, when working with him, to be stabbed two or three times with several training knives hidden about his person.

The physical eventually gives way to talk and I realize this weekend will compose itself not just of movement, but of connecting with others, and expressing our thoughts following the path of Budo, the martial way. Just before the end of the night, Ed opens the floor to questions. I have one. “What are your thoughts on this year’s theme, Gyokko Ryu Kosshijutsu?” Each year Hatsumi sensei chooses a theme. This year he chose a concept called Kosshijutsu, taken from a very old school of martial arts called the Gyokko Ryu. The concept has to do with controlling an attacker inside the space they need to harm you.

“When (Hatsumi) talks about space, controlling the space,” Ed begins, “I think he’s talking about, when you make your first move, you’re already controlling that person.” Ed continues, saying Taijutsu is less about individual concepts and more about the whole, since some of the nine schools that make up the core arts of the Bujinkan have not entirely been taught. The reality is that there is only one school - the Bujinkan – where its numerous arts are taught as one.

Nary a drop, hardly a ripple

After lunch, bathing suits are donned. It’s time for Severance’s signature event and the group heads for the water. It’s been some years since Dick was an operational Frogman, but listening to him explain entering, moving, swimming, and exiting a body of water – silently – you might guess he retired last week. When he wishes, he can move invisibly – hardly a ripple or a single drip escaping him. It’s just the sort of discipline one needs when navigating through hostile territory. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, navigating your family through streets flooded not simply with water, but looters, rapists, and murderers could be just as dangerous as collecting soil samples from the beaches of Normandy weeks before D-Day or patrolling the streets of Baghdad.

Severance then proceeds to demonstrate the finer points of hand-to-hand combat in waist and chest-deep water. I learn quickly not to take for granted the position of your opponent’s feet, especially when you can’t see them.

Martial Artistry

Finally, goodbyes are said and I begin my journey home, but I can’t help think about the significance of all we have learned in a scant three days. Slowing ourselves down broadens the senses, allowing us to pay closer attention to our surroundings, so we might pick out signs of potential threats, be it through tracking, stealth, or Taijutsu. This knowledge is ancient and directly links us with warriors present and past. It is also sacred, having been used throughout the ages for the protection and defense of others. I become suddenly aware of the burden of responsibility we each carry to study the art's essence with integrity so we might one day guide others in its passage.

Bufest, and events like it, encourage greater understanding and foster ties between Buyu, or martial friends. In the martial art of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, the sharpness of our skill, our ‘creative edge,’ is directly linked to our exposure of the artistry of those who have accepted or are possibly even destined with the burden of protecting and passing on this seemingly ageless lineage.