In four short years, Richard Raspa went from novice to black belt ó a difficult, disciplined feat for many, but perhaps more so for Raspa, who is 77 years old.
The City of Grosse Pointe resident began practicing the martial art on a bit of a whim.
"Four years ago, I was coming to the Neighborhood Club and one Saturday, two people walked in dressed in white and they had these long poles," Raspa said. "I peeked into the gym."
What he saw fascinated him, so he walked inside and instantly was greeted with warmth and welcome.
"Then when Master (Michael) Schaefer came in, again, instantly he said, ĎItís great to see you. Weíd love to have you.í I said, ĎOK. Tell me what it is.í
"There was enormous welcome and encouragement from the very first moment," he continued. "I tried it. Then I went a second time. I had found home, a community of practice."
Raspa ó an English professor at Wayne State University and adjunct professor at WSUís School of Medicine ó trains three days a week, plus ongoing training at the Neighborhood Club. His wife, Franziska, is a brown belt.
"This touches every area of my life," Raspa said. "Master Shaefer makes it an extraordinary environment where everybody is welcome. He always says, ĎJust keep coming through the door. Keep practicing.í
"What began as something I really never seriously considered has become a central part of my life, as well as my wife, who shares the passion I have," he continued. "I feel welcomed, encouraged. Iím seen for who I am ó my limitations and my potential."
Raspa has learned karate is 90 percent mental, based on focus, mindfulness and waking up to the present moment. He said his ability to concentrate and meet deadlines has improved, as have his balance and strength.
"In many ways itís a source of vitality," Raspa said. "This is a source of astonishing aliveness for me. Iím grateful for Master Schaefer and the community he has created and for the chance to engage in this discipline."
Schaefer, whoís been teaching martial arts 25 years, said heís impressed with Raspaís dedication.
"Heís a remarkable person," Schaefer said. "His devotion to martial arts and to class, from the first day, has been 100 percent. Just to see the progress from when he first started to today is incredible."
Raspa rarely misses class, but when he does, itís due to travel. Even then, he sends photos to Schaefer of his wife and him practicing on the road.
"We never neglect practicing," Raspa said.
It shows, Schaefer said, as Raspa is an inspiration to other students.
"Heís always there," Schaefer said. "He does everything everyone else does despite his age ... (Other students) who think they canít do something can just look down the line and see him doing it, so thereís no excuse.
"What we do is very detailed," he continued. "The farther you progress, the more detail there is. You never stop learning. Thereís always a challenge to it. As soon as you think you have it figured out, thereís another level to go."
Raspa, a father of three, said he will continue to practice karate as well as keep up his other passion ó teaching.
"My field is Shakespeare," he said. "Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived and anybody whoís going to argue with me is going to lose."
Raspa has co-authored five books, one of which earned the Botkin Prize from the American Folklore Society. He also was a Fulbright recipient to Italy and an Ellsworth Fellow, and twice received the highest teaching award at WSU, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1987 and 2005.
He also teaches medical humanities to fourth-year medical students.
"Itís important to have analytical skills," he said. "This is a complement to that. Look at how humanities enriches diagnostic procedures and prognostic procedures, how it makes people better doctors when thereís this awareness of the humanities."
And karate is a complement to his life, Raspa said.
"Being connected to a community of practice, participating in a group ó regularly participating so you feel connected ó is critical," he continued. "This is a wonderful journey Iím on."
Added Franziska Raspa, "I feel safe knowing self defense, knowing how to protect myself. Iím aware of whatís around me .... Itís been good for me for confidence building as a woman. I feel safe on a street in territories we donít know. Itís special for both of us to have it. I hope we never have to use it."