T'ai Chi Ch'uan Study Center
of the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area
Robert W. Smith
Is Enjoying His Ninth Decade
Robert William Smith was born in Richland, Iowa in December of 1926, the Chinese year of the Tiger. From his early days in an orphanage to his current abode in a retirement community in the mountains of North Carolina, his myriad journeys have confirmed his conviction that love and friendship are life's most precious parts. He is a man of many achievements in multiple fields, including, for example, teaching, writing, scholarship and historical research, government service, raconteurship and, most importantly, his family.
In 1951, he had the great, good fortune and good sense to become married to the lovely and able Alice. Their partnership has prospered for over five decades and counting. Bob and Alice have four children: Susan, David, Annette and Christine. They have nine grandchildren and three great grandchildren. In addition, as a result of decades of teaching Asian martial arts, there is an extended family of many hundreds of devoted students, grandstudents and great grandstudents.
For many decades Mr. Smith taught students in several martial arts. Initially, he coached boxers in Western boxing. He was an early instructor of Judo in America. For 26 years, he held a free Saturday morning T'ai Chi Ch'uan practice in the Bethesda, Maryland, YMCA, parking lot. This legacy continues as Mr. Smith now attends a free Saturday morning T'ai Chi practice in a North Carolina, YMCA, parking lot. In Bethesda, he also offered formal instruction in T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Pa-kua Ch'uan and Hsing-i Ch'uan, the three main elements of Chinese internal martial arts. In addition, he has reached many thousands more with his writings.
As an early pioneer of Asian martial arts in the West, Mr. Smith provided a positive foundation of historical accuracy while emphasizing the traditional, ethical influences of the often misunderstood and misrepresented martial arts. The bibliography in his "A Complete Guide to Judo," published in 1958, is still cited by book collectors today while his "Asian Fighting Arts," coauthored with Donn Draeger in 1969, is the definitive reference on the subject. Mr. Smith is recognized world wide as a seminal figure in introducing the West to the nei-chia (internal martial arts) of China.
As an editor, author, co-author and co-translator, Mr. Smith has produced 14 books, including the first books in English on Pa-kua Ch'uan and Hsing-i Ch'uan and one of the first books in English on T'ai Chi Ch'uan, co-authored with the famous grandmaster, the late Cheng Man-ch'ing. Mr. Smith's book, "Shaolin Temple Boxing," introduced Western readers to that now famous Chinese practice as well. He has written dozens of magazine articles, most on martial arts topics. In addition, he has written over 240 book reviews on a wide variety of topics for top newspapers across America. He also penned numerous interviews with authors who caught his interest as well as countless letters to the editor. His poetry has appeared in several anthologies.
Mr. Smith joined the U.S. Marines in 1944 at age 17, served overseas in the Pacific theater with the Fifth Division (Peleliu and Guam) and was among the first troops into southern Japan. Mr. Smith received his undergraduate degree in History from the University of Illinois and his master's degree in Far Eastern and Russian Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1955, he joined the CIA as an intelligence officer, going to Taiwan four years later in 1959. There he continued his pursuit of martial arts practice and research. During this time he went to Tokyo and won his third degree black belt in Judo at the Kodokan, the international Judo headquarters.
Mr. Smith is legendary for his stories and jokes. His ability to quote poetry and prose and to tell anecdotes and aphorisms continues to hold gatherings large and small enthralled for hours at a time. In addition, he is undefeated in identifying pop songs from the 1930s. His first book (on Judo in 1958) contained a chapter on humor, the first instance of a martial arts book ever doing so. It also contained a chapter on women in Judo, another first. Under the pen name of John F. Gilbey, he wrote "Secret Fighting Arts of the World," a fictitious send-up of the many completely outrageous martial arts stories he had collected. This produced much hilarity as some gullible readers swallowed the ridiculous tales whole and some even quoted Gilbey in subsequent publications. Gilbey went on to write two additional books, a fable and a newspaper article on, yes, knock-knock jokes. Mr. Smith once put an ad in the Washington Post offering "beginning levitation." Alas, there were no takers and the class never got off the ground. In addition, there are a few other practical jokes that must remain classified these many decades later, especially those that made the national papers.
In short, Mr. Smith lives his life in pursuit of and in conjunction with not just mere expertise and knowledge, but with wisdom leavened with love. Queried on his full life, Mr. Smith attributed it to humility and luck. More seriously, he said "I tried."
His many family members, students, readers and acquaintances offer their love, respect and best wishes and appreciate this opportunity to celebrate his ninth decade.
by Warren D. Conner, copyright © 2007
Martial Musings by Robert W. Smith, 1999.
Photograph by W. D. Conner, copyright © 2007
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