Grand Master Don Nagle, was brought up in Jersey City, New Jersey. Born in 1938, he was typical of those young people of the era raised in cosmopolitan cities. A good student, with close family ties, he was none the less a “street kid”, wise in the ways necessary to survive in Jersey City. However, in his early years his nemesis became Master Ralph Chirico, another youngster and neighbor of Master Nagle. As Master Chirico tells the story, every time he saw Master Nagle on the street, he would approach him and beat up Sensei Nagle. Many years later, Mr. Chirico wished to take karate lessons and decided to sign up at the new school at 524 Mercer Street, in Jersey City.
Unfortunately, Sensei Nagle owned that dojo and he immediately engaged Mr. Chirico in the first of many kumite’s that Mr. Chirico would be subjected to during the next month. We can only picture the predicament that Mr. Chirico was in, but he took his lumps and moved on, eventually becoming one of Master Nagle’s close friends.
While still in high school, Master Nagle began his martial arts training by studying Gojuryu karate until his graduation from High School. As a result, he was knowledgeable about the martial arts and well able to discern the elements within the teacher and the style of karate he would choose later in his life. Upon his graduation, Master Nagle joined the United States Marine Corps and was sent to Parris Island, South Carolina for his boot camp. Even so-called street kids of the big American cities are not prepared for Marine boot camp. By the end of the first day, you lie in the dark and wonder what in Heaven or Hell prompted you to volunteer for this realm of pure insanity. As all of those who eventually get to call themselves “Marine,” Master Nagle lived through this experience and was then transferred to the Advanced Infantry Training School at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Within a few months, Master Nagle was transferred to the Third Marine Division, on the island of Okinawa, a part of the Ryukyu chain, known fondly by the Marines who served there as “The Rock.” Within days, the Sensei Nagle had discovered Soke Tatsuo Shimabuku, the creator of Isshinryu karate, “The One Heart Way.” This was in late 1955 in the Kyan ( or “Chun” ) village, on Okinawa. At that time, Okinawa was in the hands of the United States government, since the end of World War II, but within several years would be handed back to the Japanese.
The young Marine, who was probably seventeen at this time, applied as a student of Soke Shimabuku and was eventually accepted after Soke detailed his daily chores, which had to be finished prior to karate studies. It would immediately have been self evident to Soke that he had a prodigy in his student, Don Nagle. As a white belt, Sensei began to form the fighting style that would become famous, throughout the karate world and which was so natural and instinctive that, with little change, he would use for the remainder of his life. He used his style, as Merlin the Sorcerer must have used his magic, deftly and without conscious thought. He would prove to be the instinctive fighter in karate, who inherently understood the principles with which Soke Shimabuku had imbued Isshinryu.
Sensei Nagle was economy of movement, who innately understood his opponent’s intentions, as soon as the opponent’s brain created the first and slightest measure of movement in his body. His Isshinryu was an immediate devastating, preemptive retaliation to movement. Unless he wished it, his fights lasted but seconds. As the Okinawans meant it to be, he fought in your face, often in a position oblique to your stance and suffocated any techniques that you attempted.
He had unlimited speed, whereby his adversary rarely saw, detected or knew what blow ended the match, or where it originated. When you felt that you had trained to the point where you had equaled his speed, he did not just notch it up a bit, he made a quantum leap. He embodied speed. His balance unbalanced your stance and created the errors of which he took advantage.
He was the cold hand of fear that you dreaded, because his perfection of the art of Isshinryu, created a silent, cold and deadly force that could not be overcome or avoided. Even those of us who felt that they gave him a good match, knew that he always controlled the pace, time and ending. He was never sorry if he injured an opponent, since that person had the option of avoiding the match.
It was also an era when we fought without any protective equipment, not even a mouth piece and were not instructed to pull our blows. In his first two dojos, the vast majority of Sensei Nagle’s students were Marines, who therefore would not complain about an injury, simply shrugging it off as a part of the game. If you were one of the Chosen Ones whom he fought several times each night, the bruises, stitches and injuries were looked upon as a medal, since he felt you were worth fighting and it became a source of honor and great pride among us to be singled out each night.
Having won matches throughout the dojos of Okinawa and finally, within the eighteen months he spent with Shimabuku, winning the legendary Okinawan Championship as a white belt, against the best of Okinawans black belts, he was promoted to Fifth Degree Black Belt or Go-Dan. At that point, with his tour of duty up, he was transferred back to the Second Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Shortly afterward, he became acquainted with Sergeant Ernie Cates, who would eventually become the eight time All Marine Judo Champion.
Ernie ran a Judo and Jiu-Jitsu school on New Bridge Street, Jacksonville, North Carolina, just outside Camp Lejeune. Ernie Cates would also become the first American to receive the rank of Sixth Degree Black Belt, or Roko-Dan, from the Kodokan, the Hallowed Hall of Judo in Japan.
The two men took to each other immediately, as warriors often do, forming a partnership in the dojo and a life long friendship. The large deck within the store front dojo, was covered with a tight mat, with a curtain off to the side, acting as a dressing room. In the rear, was the living quarters of Sgt. and Mrs. Cates, who was also a competent black belt in Judo. By the time that Sensei Nagle left for civilian life, the mat was irreversibly stained with the blood of thousands of matches. No one realized it at the time, but that dojo was to become historic and referred to in stories, anecdotes, magazines and books on karate, over the following decades. The dojo turned out fighters and teachers, who in their own right would become part of the legend of Isshinryu karate, in particular and karate in general. Among those students were people such as Rick Niemira, Jim Chapman, Ed McGrath, Don Bohan, Ralph Bove and Lou Lizzote. Although they became buddies inside and outside the school, the matches were fought with ferocity. Challengers from other dojos in and outside North Carolina, were never given any slack, since no one wanted to lose and incur the wrath of Sensei Nagle. Some of the steady students in the dojo also traveled to and challenged other schools, as far north as New York and as far south as Florida.
Grand Master Donald H. Nagle passed on in August 23, 1999. He left behind a legacy of perfection as the only goal, through dedication and perseverance. He will never be forgotten.