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Isshin-ryu karate is one of the country’s most popular forms of martial arts, and Harriman’s Tommy True has stayed true to its teachings for 50 years.
True, a grand master, operates a school in Harriman, in his Trenton Street location for more than 30 years.
“I have the oldest Isshin-ryu school in the state of Tennessee right now,” True said.
With snowy white hair and a boyish grin, True doesn’t look like a dominating force in martial arts, but his dedication and skill are respected.
True was inducted into the International Isshin-ryu Karate Association Hall of Fame in 1988, named instructor of the year in 1982 and received the spirit of Isshin~ryu award in 1987. From 2003 to 2011 he was president of the International Isshin-ryu Karate Association.
He was on the original board with his teacher, grandmaster Harold Long, a Rockwood man, who while a Marine stationed in Okinawa had learned Isshin-ryu himself from founder Tatsuo Shimabuku.
True was studying karate in Oak Ridge when Long came to the school and demonstrated his skill against a teacher there who had been bragging about his own skills.
Afterward, True said he knew he wanted to go learn from him and traveled to Long’s Knoxville dojo (martial arts school) to learn.
“This may be my 50th, but there may not have been a 50th if it wasn’t for Mr. Long,” True said.
True became a longtime friend of Long, who was proud that he had survived the famous battle of the Chosin Reservoir, when Chinese huge numbers overwhelmed the United States and its allies in North Korea during a bitterly cold winter.
True visited with him shortly before he died on Oct. 12, 1998.
True said the school he operates was opened by Long and another Rockwood native.
“Mr. Long and Bobby Dodd opened the school I’m running in the fall of 1963. I trained with Bobby and Mr. Long both for a few years there. We started in the old National Guard in Harriman. It was Mr. Long’s second school that he ever opened,” True said.
He believes they deserve a lot of credit.
“There probably wouldn’t be an Isshinryu school in the East Tennessee area if it wasn’t for those two,” True said.
True logged a lot of time in karate, including countless tournaments.
“I’ve even missed (wedding) anniversaries to go to karate (events),” True said.
He’s married to forgiving wife Kay, and he has a daughter, Lisa Bonafede, as well as granddaughter, Tayler.
Emails from surrounding area sensei were sent to honor True during the small celebration in his honor.
Many long-time karate students, some his and others acquaintances from his many years in the martial arts, also came to honor True.
One of the letters to True was from sensei (martial arts teacher) Harold Mitchum, who, like Long, studied under Shimabuku, and is renowned for his influence on Isshinryu.
“Tommy, I count it a real honor to call you my friend and acknowledge your standing in the karate circuit and your dedication to Isshinryu. Master Tatsuo Shimabuku would certainly be proud,” the letter said.
Mitchum was one of four, including Long, who brought Isshinryu back to the United States.
“He’s the only one left of the four Marines that brought it into the country,” True said.
Today, many of True’s students have excelled in martial arts.
He’s had one married couple test for black belts together, as well as a father-and-son team, Steve and Justin Edwards.
Steve Edwards had taken karate before he began taking his son, but he quit because of a back injury. Watching Justin, he decided to come back to the discipline.
“It hurt worse sitting there than it did to get out here and move,” Steve said.
He’s stuck with True because of his knowledge.
“I wanted to learn under somebody that really knows his stuff. He’s really dedicated to it,” Steve said.
True said Justin, now 27, has studied with him since he was 9 or 10. He had nothing but praise for the young man.
Ron Cain started studying with True 18 years ago.
“I came to him because I wanted a good karate instructor, but he’s my friend. He’s taught me a lot about how to live outside the dojo. He’s a very steady, consistent, centered person, a steady reference point for a lot of people,” Cain said.
Andrew Gunter is one of the youngsters who studies with True.
“It is more disciplined than some of the other schools I have seen,” Gunter said.