Jan
10

“My Mentor, Bill Perry,” by Stanley Pranin

I have thought of writing this piece for many years now, but never got around to getting started until I recently happened upon a serendipitous discovery. More about that shortly. Let me begin my story.

Shortly after I began my study of Yoshinkan Aikido in Lomita, California in August of 1962, I met a 35-year-old man at the dojo. One day we paired up to train together during class. All I remember is that he was quite strong and was twisting my arms and wrists every which way. After class had ended, he commented, “You’re really flexible, what do you eat?” I was only 17 years old and had no idea of how to respond to such an off-the-wall-comment. He was a pleasant, well-built fellow, and we chatted briefly, and I learned his name was Bill.

Bill attended class regularly during this period as did I, and one day something quite unusual happened. After the workout, Bill stood still on the mat and suddenly threw a back flip. I thought that was pretty cool. Then without warning–again without moving–he performed a perfect front flip, which I’m told is more difficult. I stared in disbelief along with several other training mates who witnessed the scene. Needless to say, this caught my attention.

Edmond Szekely (1905-1979)

After that, Bill became quite friendly towards me and seemed to take me under his wing. It turned out he was quite an intelligent fellow, in addition to being a superb athlete. He began talking to me about things that I had never heard of before. I learned that Bill had been a gymnast in high school, served in the navy at the end or shortly after World War II, and that he moved around a lot and had experienced many things. He was a rather mysterious person in some ways, and totally unpredictable. Although the sequence of events is a bit blurry since I’m straining to recall events of more than 45 years ago, I remember him taking me to a local health foods store and introducing me to the owner. Bill spoke about the importance of diet and natural foods. I tried raw milk and carrot juice for the first time! He was of course a very healthy physical specimen himself and a vegetarian, I seem to recall.


Bill also talked about the benefits of yoga, and I learned that he had spent some period of time at Rancho La Puerta in Baja California as a yoga instructor, if I’m not mistaken. This health retreat was run by a man named Edmund Szekely who was a famous linguist, psychologist, and natural living advocate. Szekely was a philologist and prolific author of more than 80 books. Bill had me read one of his works whose title was something like, “The Essene Gospel of Jesus Christ.” I really didn’t know what to make of it.

Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952)

Among the other books on Eastern religion he introduced me to was “An Autobiography of a Yogi,” by Paramahansa Yogananda, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Bill even took me up to see the Self-Realization Fellowship, which was founded by Yogananda, in Los Angeles. We also dropped by the Rosicrucian Society Fellowship on one occasion.

As is obvious, Bill was very interested in Eastern philosophy and talked about Hinduism, Zen, Zoroastrianism, Sufism, and the like. These were all entirely new topics for me, and I remember being a bit overwhelmed. A few months after meeting Bill, I graduated from high school and enrolled at a nearby college. At first, I had little interest in my academic studies, and I think this was partially because of all of the things Bill was filling my head full of.

Bill had interests that extended beyond Eastern culture as well and spoke very enthusiastically about Alfred Korzybski, the philosopher and scientist who developed the theory of general semantics. Korzybski was famous for his observation that “the map is not the territory.” He encouraged me to read Korzybski’s famous book, “Science and Sanity,” which seemed to me a daunting task. As an aside, a few years later in 1969, when I was in army basic training, during an off moment, a sergeant told us a joke. It went something like this: “A company of soldiers were off on a bivouac and proceeded to get lost. They were under the command of a green lieutenant who based his every move on the terrain map he had with him. At a certain point, the sergeant, a veteran soldier, noticed that his company had lost its way and had been walking around in circles. The sergeant attempted to diplomatically point out to the lieutenant that the troop was wandering around aimlessly. The young officer would have none of it, and stood his ground. Finally, the frustrated sergeant told a soldier to go outside the tent and ordered him to shake a nearby tree. He told the lieutenant to carefully watch his map, that when the infantryman moved the tree, he would be able to find their location on the map!” I chuckled to myself and thought about Bill and Korzybski’s famous adage about the map not being the territory.

Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)

Like Szekely, Korzybski was an outstanding linguist and spoke many different languages. Thinking back, it may have been that their examples and Bill’s encouragement were factors in my devoting myself to the study of foreign languages, both academically and professionally, early in my career.

Another memory that stands out in my mind is the day Bill took me to see a Japanese samurai movie at the Toho La Brea theater in Los Angeles. This was a thrilling experience for me to see, for the first time, the eastern equivalent of a swashbuckler involving samurai duels, battles with exotic weapons, ninja, and such. I remember that Bill commented on how the actors who portrayed the samurai were selected for their noble features in contrast to the commoners. I still think about that whenever I watch a chambara film.

After a few months of aikido training, we heard rumors that the dojo was in financial difficulty and might have to close down. Bill had found another aikido group at the San Pedro YMCA, a happy coincidence for there were very few aikido schools in those days. He checked it out, liked it, and suggested that I drop by and do a workout. I did so and there I met Isao Takahashi, step-father of our own Francis Takahashi who will be familiar to most of our readers.

Isao Takahashi (1912-1972)

Takahashi Sensei was a second generation Hawaiian who was partially educated in Japan. In fact, he spoke English with a Japanese accent, or maybe it was a Hawaiian accent, I couldn’t tell! Takahashi Sensei ushered me into the world of the Aikikai and Koichi Tohei Sensei and influenced me on many levels. It was because of him that I began studying Japanese. I would never be doing what I am today were it not for this fortuitous meeting. And it was my mentor Bill who made the connection for me!

I mentioned above that I was not very keen about college studies in the beginning. Aikido was certainly a distraction in this sense, as was the strong influence of Bill who bombarded me with fanciful stories and information about Eastern cultures and other off-the-beaten-track topics. At the same time, I had another interest that absorbed a lot of my energy, and that was bodybuilding. Starting at the age of 15, I began reading every bodybuilding magazine I could get my hands on, and set up a gym in our garage. I also began working out at the YMCA where our aikido class also met twice a week. I never became very bulky, being the slender type, but I was pretty strong.

Bill used to kid me about my unrelenting interest in weight-training, not so subtlely implying that I was wasting my time. He told me this story once. It seems that Bill was heavily involved in weight-training in his younger days. At some point, he became acquainted with yoga and had met an Indian adept. One day, Bill dragged the yogi to the gym to introduce him to weight-training. The Indian just smiled as if to humor Bill. Finally he said, “I will show you what true strength is.” He had Bill pile a lot of plates on a barbell and confirmed that “this was a heavy weight.” The slightly built yogi then proceeded to do a perfect squat of several hundred pounds, not ever having touched a weight previously! Bill’s story has stuck in my mind for many years.

In any event, Bill could not persuade me to let go of my desire to become physically strong with anything he said. Besides, I thought he was being ridiculous because he himself had obviously worked out a lot, and had a fine, muscular physique. One day, he invited me to his home for the first time. He was living in the basement of his sister’s house in San Pedro. He said he wanted to show me something. Bill pulled out a photo album and said to me, “Do you recognize this guy?” I almost died on the spot! There were a whole series of photographs of Bill together with the famous Steve Reeves of Hercules movie fame! It seems that he was Steve’s training partner in Florida shortly before Reeves left for Europe to star in a wildly successful string of epic movies. Well, Steve Reeves had been my absolute idol–along with millions of other young and old men of that time–for many years. I just could not believe that Bill had actually known the great Steve Reeves, and was his training partner, to boot! Those photos proved it!

Thinking back, Bill was a restless soul due in part to a tragic event that occurred to him as a teenager. He would leave town unannounced for months on end, and then suddenly show up as if nothing had happened. This occurred three or four times, and then suddenly he vanished around 1965. I never heard from him again. Over the years, I met a few old timers who knew him, too, but they had no idea what happened to him either.

If he is still alive, I think he would be eighty-three or four years old today. He, like me, was from San Pedro, California, and attended San Pedro High School. If anyone were to know how he might be located, I would be incredibly grateful. I have long felt a void after his sudden departure from my life. There was so much more to discuss and experience. I know we would have enjoyed a life-long friendship. But, “poof,” he just disappeared from my life.

In the beginning of this article, I mentioned that something had happened just recently that motivated to write about Bill Perry after hesitating all these years. Here is what I found on the Internet by doing a google search on “Bill Perry and Steve Reeves”. A few other photos showed up too, but I think this is the nicest one!

"My mentor, Bill Perry, during his time as the training partner of Steve Reeves in Florida, c. 1957

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Comments

  1. Delightful, Stan. Thank you. Lovely 3-breath hug… Molly

  2. Nice Stan! Is it coincidence that my Sensei was just talking to us about True strength several days ago.

  3. Allen Beebe says:

    Hi Stan,

    I really enjoyed the article and hope that you find Bill, well and happy. It has always been curious to me how interconnected we all are. And, still, there seem to be individuals that seem to serve as a nexus or confluence of our “life streams.” They often are unaware, and sadly sometimes so are we, how profoundly influential they are.

    I particularly enjoyed reading about your early interest in and pursuit of Body Building. I could appreciate your appreciation for Steve Reeves. Not too many folks remember that era of Body Building.

    I knew I must be dead serious about my pursuit of internal strength/Aiki when I put away my gym after a more than three decade long love affair with iron! Not an easy thing.

    Thanks again,
    Allen

  4. Jan Oliver Smith says:

    Hi Stan,

    Talk about deja vu! This was an entertaining and well crafted romp down memory lane. I`m guessing that our nearly 50 year reunion in Mesquite, last Nov, fired up your neurons to generate this welcomed offering which filled in some blanks for me regarding you, Bill, and how he influenced us to follow our inner gleam toward finding our respective life mission and rendezvous with destiny. Many thanks, old friend and former workout chum. The picture of Bill and Reeves was a pleasant surprise.

    All the best.

    See you soon,

    Jan

  5. Jan Oliver Smith says:

    P. S. Stan, being an astrology buff in those days, Bill indicated that he was an Aquarius
    born in 1930. Therefore he would be one month or sign from being 82.

  6. Dear Stan,
    This was a very well written article and it helped me to fill in alot of pieces of your life prior to knowing you as my Sensei in Monterey in the early seventies. I had often wondered why you were so interested in the back and front somersaults whenever Tom or myself would do them at your United Energy Center Dojo.

    This story really filled in a lot of questioned of which have been on my mind for several years now, thank you for sharing. I recall you speaking about Bill Perry on several occasions in the garage dojo, the Pacific Grove Dojo and your Seaside Dojo, but I never really placed a face with the name until this article. Those were really great days for me in your dojos. It was the beginning of my Aikido studies and a lot of your students from those dojos like Pat Hendricks, Tom Gamble, Dennis Evans, etc. kept traveling the road that you introduced them to and are now world famous teacher’s themselves. You have touched so many lives. I really like the picture of Steve Reeves, he was also one of my heroes growing up in Southern California. Really a great article. Thank you.

  7. Hello Stan,
    Steve owned a gym in Miami Florida called Steve Reeves Athletic Club for about a year or so. That was in the 1955/1956 time period. Steve and I were close friends and business partners for many years. I’m finishing a biography on Steve and would like to speak to you for a few minutes if you have time. I like to asks you a few questions about Bill Perry. I can be reached at 949-285-6345.
    George Helmer
    President Steve Reeves International
    http://www.stevereeves.com