At nearly 80, he earns his black belt in Aikido

Bob O'Hare, who turns 80 this week. (Joseph Kaczmarek/For the Inquirer)

This is a very important day in the life of any martial artist," said the sensei, the teacher, to his students seated before him, "but especially for Bob, who started his journey late in life.

"Bob, please take care of everybody. Try not to hurt them."

Bob O'Hare, who turns 80 this week, was about to be tested for his black belt in Aikido.

His best friends - from college, from his first job at Univac in the 1950s, guys with canes - came Saturday to the River of Life Martial Arts & Wellness Center, the dojo, in Fort Washington to share in the big moment.

His wife, Carol, his high school sweetheart and bride of 56 years, came along with children and grandchildren.

The dojo was filled with about 50 people. David Goldberg, the sensei, had never seen more at a black belt test.

Bob's grandson Connor O'Hare, 17, a student at Lower Merion High School, would film it.

Could he beat his grandfather in a fight?

"It depends," he said. "My brother and I fool around with him sometimes, and he's very serious. I think he would take me. He could defend well."

Bob would never fight. Aikido is known as the peaceful martial art.

"If I were attacked on South Street," he said earlier, "I would say, 'I'm sorry.' I'd ask them to leave me alone. If they wanted my money, I would give them the money."

Goldberg, the sensei, defined Aikido as "the way of harmony, winning without fighting." But he added, "If some young punks got ahold of Bob, they'd have trouble getting up. That's for sure."

Bob, who lives in Flourtown, moved to Philadelphia in the 1950s to work for Remington Rand Univac on early computers. He was an engineer but switched careers in his 30s to become an executive coach, teaching peace, harmony, and teamwork to corporate leaders.

He has always been adventurous.

"Just after we were married," said his wife, "he came home and asked if I'd like to live in Europe."

"When?" she asked.

"Next week," he replied.

They spent a year in Germany and Vienna.

Bob skied until two years ago and still scuba dives with his wife and kids - the next trip will include three generations - and he ran six miles every other day until he was 74. His knees and feet hurt, so he looked for something new.

He wandered into the dojo six years ago.

"It's a good feeling to work out and stretch and use your body and roll around," he said. "When I spend an hour and a half at the dojo for a training session, I will be thrown to the ground 100 times and get up. And I will throw someone else to the ground 100 times, and they will get up. This ability to work together and feel myself active, with somebody, it's a good feeling, and at the end of it, it's not like, 'Wow, what a workout.' It's more like, 'That was wonderful. And calming.' "

He suggests other older people consider Aikido.

"If nothing else, I know how to fall down," he said. "We should just start a class with senior citizens learning how to fall down."

His test began.

Sensei would bark a command in Japanese, and Bob would deflect an attacker. Another command, and Bob would fend off an attack in a different way.

"It's so beautiful, like a ballet," said Connie Piccione, 74, whose husband worked with Bob at Univac. The old gang still goes every year to a lake in the Poconos. Bob once offered a demonstration, and Connie Piccione threw a punch.

"I was amazed at how quickly I went down," she said.

In the test, the attackers kept coming for about 15 minutes. Bob would take their energy, control it, put them to ground.

"How you feeling, Bob?" the teacher asked.

"A little huffy-puffy, but OK," he replied.

"Sit down. Relax for a minute. You're doing great. Half over."

"The hard half?" Bob asked. His fans all laughed.

The attacks continued with a knife, a sword.

Bob would deflect them, even disarm the attackers.

Then, the finale.

Five classmates surrounded him.

What followed was almost like a square dance. Instead of swinging his partners, one after the other, he thwarted their attacks and threw them to ground.

The crowd erupted with applause.

His daughter, Kathy Milano, of Mount Laurel, had her hands folded in front of her face, tears in her eyes. "I am so proud of him," she said. "So happy for him."

Bob had a huge smile.

The class sat in a row in front of the sensei.

"Nice test, Bob," he said. "You passed."

Hugs and handshakes all around.

Then it was off to a pizza shop for a first-class celebration.

 


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