Bethea's Karate Studio

119 West Sycamore Street
Kokomo, IN 46901


Sensei Bethea

Bethea Applies Life Lessons To His Teachings

In the forest of life, there are many pathways that lead to adventure, and other paths to forge for oneself.  Eddie Bethea’s life has taken interesting and sometimes difficult journeys through that forest, which have created the man who today owns and operates Kokomo School of Self Defense, Bethea's Karate Studio.  Growing up in the segregated south, Bethea was the second oldest of eight children. His father was a laborer at a fertilizer plant and then for a tire recapping company.  His mother still lives in North Carolina, where Bethea was raised.

After graduating from high school in 1961, the 17 year-old Bethea was filled with resentment and hostility due to the degrading environment that prevailed in the South at that time.  Although he had dreams of becoming a Baptist minister, Bethea saw his only opportunities to leave the negative environment as either going to college or joining the military. Since he realized there was no hope of finding the money to pay for college, he joined the United States Air Force immediately after graduation.  His first assignment after graduating from basic training was at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.  Bethea felt anxiety about the assignment because of the racial tensions flaring in the South.  As soon as he arrived in Montgomery, racial comments were hurled at him. Having already tasted that bitterness growing up, Bethea said the comments didn’t phase him much.


A Melting Pot

During his assignment in Alabama, many memorable and now-historic civil rights movements were taking place around the United States, such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; The Selma to Montgomery march; President Kennedy’s assassination; the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama; Governor George Wallace standing at the doors of the University of Alabama to keep negroes out; and Miss Rosa Parks’ stand on the public bus. According to Bethea, all of these events were amplified in Montgomery due to the already-stressed race relations in the South.


A Simple Sign

Bethea’s interest in any form of martial arts was peaked years before he left to serve his country. Relatives who had served in the military would talk about Judo after coming back from World War II.  Later, the television show Wild Wild West caught his fancy with all the kicks and choreographed stunts.  But, it wasn’t until his first tour in Okinawa that Bethea took his first karate class.  “In January of 1966, I received my orders to Okinawa,” he said.  “I arrived in
Okinawa in June and that’s when it all began to happen.”  On the bus ride from one air base to another, Bethea saw a simple sign that caught his attention.  The sign said “Karate Gym.”  After he was processed into the new base, he waited for his first check in order to start taking karate lessons.  “Once I got paid, I took a taxi and told the driver to drive that road until I saw the sign again,”  he said.  “When I spotted it, I had him stop and I got out and walked to the gym.”

Bethea began training with Shugoro Nakazato Kyoshi.  Although he was not as serious then about karate as he is today, Bethea continued to study the art with Sensei Nakazato -- a man who would play a significant role in Bethea’s life for the next three decades.  During his training with Sensei Nakazato, Bethea never trained with any ranks lower than a brown belt.  This accelerated his learning, although he said it was very punishing at times.  The biggest change Bethea saw in himself was the fact he was conquering his inferiority complex that still lingered from his childhood.  “I grew up with a lot of negatives and inferiors in me,” he said.  “I know that’s from coming out of
the segregated South.  It was a suppressed environment that caused me to harbor many negatives while growing up. I  was fortunate enough to turn it around for the positive; however, that wasn’t the case with many.  Through karate, I was feeling better about myself.  I had looked for that change when I joined the military, but didn’t find it until I got into karate.”  With a new found passion in life, Bethea had almost unknowingly taken the first steps in what he now calls his life’s mission.  It didn’t matter where he was stationed, as he found time to continue his training wherever he went.  He took military leaves and returned to Okinawa to study with Sensei Nakazato.  Although his time was limited, the visits and intense training sparked Bethea to continue with his training on his own.


Acclimating to Kokomo

By January 1968, just two years after his first lesson, Bethea was promoted to Yondan -- fourth degree black belt -- and received his certification from his Sensei to be an instructor.  The confidence Bethea gained through karate would allow him to negotiate difficult situations associated with his military assignments, contend with family hardships and even begin karate classes.  Bethea was assigned to Grissom Air Force Base in Bunker Hill.  He admitted he had troubles acclimating to the snow and freezing winters.  He even volunteered for another tour in Vietnam to escape the Indiana winters.  But, before he was shipped out to Vietnam, he realized that Indiana was a place he was comfortable and he wanted to stay.  “I had not yet been to Kokomo and had only met people from Kokomo who worked on the base,” he said.  “Everyone said that relations between military and civilians wasn’t good in Kokomo, so that’s why I hadn’t gone there yet.  Once I started meeting people in Kokomo though, I found they were real with me and it wasn’t like people said it was going to be.  Things were going really well and I had sacrificed it all because I wanted to get away from the cold weather.”  Before his second tour in Vietnam, Bethea had started his first karate class at Carver Community Center.  When he returned from Vietnam one year later, he was determined to be assigned to Grissom again.  Although he was qualified to do much more, Bethea took an assignment in the food service just to ensure his return to Indiana.  Even the cold weather couldn’t keep him away from the life he was building before his departure.


Becoming A Teacher

In July 1973, he re-enlisted for his final eight years in the military.  He was continuing his two hour workout everyday when the opportunity to teach karate at Carver Community Center came to him.  “My first class was in March 1973,” he said.  “The lessons were a mere $15 a month.  The class grew and was known for its toughness.  Nobody ever had any concerns for kumite (sparring) then.  Normally, you got a new person in and worked him extremely hard and if he came back, you knew that you would have a good student.  Karate, then and now, can only be compared when a person has been in it for a number of years and they have competed on the circuit.  That is because time brings about changes in people and the way they do things.  It has certainly brought about a change in the manner in which karate is taught. It has lost some of its meaning and some of its toughness because of the changes people have made have been to its detriment.”  Regardless of how other instructors conduct their classes, Bethea believes it is his responsibility and his God-given mission to teach as he has and will teach karate for the remainder of his life.  While building his life in Indiana, Bethea’s teaching has expanded from teaching self-defense classes at Carver Community Center to owning and operating his own dojo.  He gives much of the credit of his success in Kokomo to a few individuals who helped him along the way.  “Mr. Jim Stidham came to me and said I should have my own school, ” he said.  “That’s when we opened the Kokomo School of Self Defense at 604 N. Washington St.  That was May of 1976.  I believe he was God’s messenger sent to get me started on this mission of teaching karate and helping people.”  Many other people have walked into Bethea’s life to help him cultivate his dreams.  June Gearheart made him an offer to move into the building at 119 W. Sycamore Street, which was his first opportunity to operate his own dojo.  Deciding to move his classes to Sycamore Street was a good decision.  Since that move, Bethea had yet another opportunity to purchase that building.  With renovations to the upstairs portion completed, Bethea made a final move to the upstairs of the building.  He now leases the downstairs portion to a health clinic. All of this came through yet another messenger from God. That person was Scott Pitcher who himself is a man of vision.


Competitive Edge

Throughout his years in Kokomo, Bethea estimates he has taught around 10,000 people his discipline of karate.  He has treasured the years God has given him to reach others.  Also over the years, Bethea has competed in a number of karate tournaments and holds three world grand championships and 10 division championships.  He remembers the first tournament he competed in didn’t go as he thought it would.  “I remember competing in my first tournament at the National Guard Armory in Indianapolis in the summer of 1973,” he said.  “It was a total disaster because I thought I had it all together.  I had sparred with others, especially with my training in Okinawa, but I was
devastated in my very first match.”  After that competition, Bethea regressed and began to wonder if his work was worth the humiliation.  But again, Bethea worked through the negative and conquered the doubts he had.  It is that internal motivation that he hopes he has passed along to his students.  He knows that the determination he has was nurtured by his instructors.  Bethea estimates he has 240 students enrolled in karate classes, and 300 coming to his cardio classes. “Many of the people are in their mid 40s,” he said.  “The Mighty Mite classes are for kids six and under.  They’re probably my favorite because you never know what they’ll do.”  Life's satisfaction At 59 years old, Bethea has been advanced in rank by several Hanshi Rank instructors.  While that is a personal accomplishment, he gets more satisfaction from someone stopping him to thank him for his instruction. He believes if he’s helped someone along their way in life, then he’s done something for the betterment of mankind.  “There are teachers and instructors along the way in anyone’s life who stand out,” he said.  “When you teach someone, you give that person a part of your life.  If you value what the teacher gave you, then you will hold that person in high regard. Some teachers give a little more.  I hold Sensei Nakazato in high regard for what he has given to me.  I am always hoping that I bring honor to him and his name in all that I do.”