Karate club still kicking 50 years on

Two karate instructors posing.
James Hart (left) and Noel Francisco are the current instructors of the 50-year-old Karate club that was started on campus. Photo by Ken Jones.

Cellie Agunbiade

In September 1968, a young James Hart started a karate club in the Meeting Place.

Fifty years later, it is believed to be the longest-running non-academic club at U of T Scarborough.

At the age of 16, Hart enrolled as a student at Higashi School of Karate. At 19 in April 1967, he got his black belt Shodan. The following year, he commenced teaching at the campus.

“Students from my club were creating other clubs in other institutions. One guy went to Ryerson University, the other to University of Waterloo, and another to University of Western Ontario,” Hart says. “So, I decided to create one here and it’s been successful for 50 years.”

Turns out the first class was so big, he had to figure out a way to make the numbers more manageable.

“More than 60 people showed up,” Hart says. “I thought, ‘I have to thin the class’ because it was too big, and it was just me. I did a really hard class and the next time, we had 40 and I kept it like that.”

Man looking at a place.
James Hart overlooks the Meeting Place, where he taught his first class back in 1968. Photo by Cellie Agunbiade. 

The karate club now holds classes at Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, where anyone in Toronto can take them.

Hart currently teaches classes with other instructors. One of them is Noel Francisco, one of Hart’s former students, and the second in the club to get a black belt.

“I started (taking Hart's classes) in 1974,” he says. “I needed some discipline and wanted to be focused, so I joined the karate club.”

Francisco has been teaching students in the club alongside Hart since 1980. He helped out by teaching the lower belt students, while Hart tended to the higher belt students.

“At that time, I was a brown belt, training for my black belt,” Francisco says. “There were three of us instructors. It was Sensei Hart (Sensei is a respectful title used by a student for a teacher), Ken Fisher, and I. Sensei always needed help because we were so many students.”

Although Fisher has retired from teaching, Francisco and Hart still visit him from time to time.

“He has been out of it (karate teaching), but he is still a friend. Karate people are always friends for life,” Francisco says.

Karate even brought Hart a brush with fame, when he went to a tournament in Cleveland and met martial artist and actor Chuck Norris. 

“My Sensei, Shane Higashi, friend, Ken Fisher and I took a picture with him. It was no big deal because at that time he wasn’t a celebrity.” 

Four men in karate clothes.
(From left to right) Sensei Higashi, Ken Fisher, Jim Hart and Chuck Norris at the 1970 Cleveland Ohio Tournament. Photo courtesy of James Hart. 

In 2008, Hart earned his 5th-degree black belt and Renshi title (meaning “polished master”). He obtained his shodan in kobujutsu (weapons) in 2011.

When asked about why he still teaches Karate, Hart replies, “It’s like, why do you breathe? It is because you have to.”

Francisco also believes that karate is a part of him and teaching is what he loves doing.

“It feels great. Our job is to promote our style, which is Chitō-ryū, while also helping students benefit from the things karate can offer,” Francisco says. “We love getting together and teaching."