85 & ‘new’ karate kid

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At 84 years of age, Edgar Edwards could have been sitting back and enjoying his almost 30-year retirement from teaching music at East Greenwich schools. Perhaps he could spend his days going back to Kent Hospital where he and his Bernese Mountain dog Rallo used to visit kids. Or maybe he could keep reading for IN-SIGHT Radio, a station that reads newspaper articles for the blind or visually impaired. But after decades of giving, Edwards decided to challenge himself with something he hasn’t done before. So he kicked off his shoes, tied a cloth belt around a new black uniform and decided to learn karate.

In the shadow of landing aircraft, is the Don Rodrigues Karate Academy located in an unassuming building on Commerce Drive. But inside, there’s seemingly enough space to fit a couple extra airplanes – that is, if it weren’t for the trophies within its walls.

Edwards, who since taking up karate has turned 85, began training at the academy last August in a 6 p.m. class with students much younger than himself. Shortly after starting, he wanted to be with students a little closer to his age – or at least as close as he could get. Edwards then started attending the session slotted one hour later and that’s when he began to learn from Grand Master Don Rodrigues himself. When Rodrigues first saw Edwards, he didn’t believe who he was watching.

“Someone said to me, ‘You know Edgar’s 84?’ I said ‘No way, he can’t be 84. He looks a lot younger than that,’” Rodrigues said. “I pictured him to be in his early 70s or something.”

As a kid in school, Rodrigues said that he was getting picked on, so his father steered him toward martial arts as a way to defend himself. From there, he spent his life learning, mastering and finally teaching karate. He began teaching in 1971 after receiving his black belt and opened the Warwick studio in 1990.

Last Saturday, Rodrigues presented Edwards with a yellow belt. He said Edwards is the oldest student in his academy to ever receive a rank.

The road to this accomplishment certainly presented Edwards with obstacles. To begin class, Rodrigues instructs students to bow to the United States flag, then to each other before kneeling on the padded floor to wrap their belts around their waists. Edwards said one of the biggest challenges he faces with karate is getting up off the floor after kneeling or during martial arts training. One thing that has helped Edwards in earning a rank has been occasionally using a chair to complete some exercises.

“I improvise with people,” Rodrigues said. “My idea is to get the martial arts across…I said to Edgar, ‘We can do some of the stretching in the chair.’”

“That helped a lot,” Edwards said.

Students in karate earn stripes on their belts as they advance through the program. And when they earn four, they are eligible for a new rank – and with it, a new color belt. But to keep ranking higher and higher in the academy, there is a curriculum each student needs to know. Then they must demonstrate that they understand what is being taught.

“The hardest part is knowing the nomenclature,” Edwards said.

When being tested, he said matching the name to the action he is called to perform doesn’t always click right away. But when it finally does, he is able to execute.

Edwards said that for him, doing martial arts is partly about a feeling of accomplishment in something new. It’s also about respect. Edwards said that his wife and children are in disbelief that he’s doing karate, but has earned that respect from them for continuously willing to learn. Edwards was looking for an opportunity to grow in more ways than one. He said karate has been that outlet.

“[It keeps] your brain alive as well as your body,” Edwards said. “It requires a great deal of coordination to do this. It looks easy sometimes, but it’s not. You’ve got to have a lot of intensity to throw a punch.”

Even after earning his yellow belt, this new pursuit in the world of karate is not over for Edwards. There are many more stripes and belts he wants to work toward and is constantly gaining an understanding of the art. But for now, the yellow belt is fitting for the nickname Rodrigues has given to him.

“I call Edgar my golden nugget,” he said.

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