My Coach

In the early 1960s during my undergraduate years I had the good fortune to go to college on an athletic scholarship. As a varsity fencer on the University of Detroit Fencing team. Go Titans! The épée was my weapon of battle. Mr. Richard Perry was my coach. 

As a fencer I was a middling performer. I did, however, win a gold medal in an individual tournament for unclassified fencers sponsored by the AFLA, Amateur Fencing League of America. There was also a tournament where my performance was the tie breaker. And I was the big winner at a restaurant at supper with my team mates once upon a time. More on my storied past later. But, all in all, not too shabby.

Below is a photo of me from the U of D 1964 Tower yearbook. Also, my good buddy Tom Kostecke. More about our exploits further along in this article.

Looking around in my history to find singular subjects to write about, I realize that Coach Perry was a very important figure in my education as an athlete and as a man.

Coach Perry was not just about training us to be successful competitive fencers (at which, by the way, he was a master teacher). But also, he held it equally his responsibility to us to build good character and to inculcate lessons on the enduring life values; things like sportsmanship, teamwork, integrity, optimism, good cheer, loyalty, confidence, self-respect, dependability, work ethic, and even how to eat like a gentleman at a fancy restaurant. I remember his inscription on my graduation year team photo, ever encouraging and reassuring that I could do anything I set out to do if I put my mind and heart to it. Thank you, Coach Perry. I’m getting there.

We even had some training in everyday diplomacy and tact in the face of adversity. On the many weekend trips for matches away from home turf, those who got to ride in the coach’s drafty station wagon were treated to the continuous production of richly scented smoke from his never ending supply of Brindley’s Mixture pipe tobacco. It’s a classic, still sold today. If you want to share the team’s experience driving through the cold night in the coach’s drafty car, get some Brindley’s Mixture and smoke a big bowl full in a small room seated next to an open window in the dead of winter. If you have one, a small fan blowing into the room will complete the experience.

Oh, and I think I remember that he had a preference for classical music. I’m sure he was completely convinced that he was doing a good deed and exposing his boys to the cultural refinements of life. Boys, however, will be boys. Suffice it to say, it was a combination of variables that tested a young man’s tact to the limit. But, youth is resilient. No one let on or complained. The team was too large to fit into one car, so we usually borrowed a dad’s vehicle or got a rental. There was a rather definite, if nuanced and tactful competition to ride in the second car. There, the rule was rock and roll and permission to speak freely. I remember once even interrupting the festivities for everybody to hear the latest new sensation on the car radio, The Beatles, coming in loud and clear in the night ethers from WBZ Boston.

Coach Perry was a rather tweedy fellow, professorially so. Besides the Brindley’s Mixture and the classical music on his car radio, a singular memory is the loden green Tyrolean felt hat, the kind with the cord band and the ornate panache with assorted feathers and boar bristle brush. The Coach I think prided himself in being resourceful, and I wonder if he in fact didn’t use that bristle brush to work up his shaving lather. I haven’t seen the old guy in a while and I wonder if he still sports that trademark fedora. I’ll bet, if he does, there are more than a few medals festooned on it.

I want to certainly credit the Coach for establishing the Fencing Team as enduring presence in the college athletic program. Football had been dropped from the athletic department and basketball ruled. [Dave Debusshere and Charley North were amazing in the early 1960s.] At the time in the early years of the fencing program the Athletic Department may not have been all that supportive, particularly financially. The coach I suspect did his battle with the higher ups and shielded us from the harsh realities of keeping fencing alive. Today the university is proud of its successful and dynamic fencing program. Thank you, Mr. Perry.

As I mentioned, we travelled to away competitions. Setting off on Friday afternoon, fighting the matches on Saturdays and back home by Sunday evening. From Detroit we travelled as far south as Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. West to Indiana, Iowa, and even up to Madison, Wisconsin. East to Oberlin and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburg. North, not that far to go to meet Michigan State.

We arrived at Duke late one Friday evening. What a beautiful campus. Like the grounds of some medieval village it seemed to me. My buddy Tom Kostecke and I managed to get an after-hours tour of the chapel there. In fact, the organist who opened the locked door for us even played a little for us. It was like a dream being in that rare and exotic place. I believe they call it a chapel; it’s a cathedral really.

In one weekend we managed to have matches with the University of Iowa in Iowa City and Iowa State in Ames. One thing I remember about that trip was the breakfast at a truck stop. Words to the wise from the coach, “If you want a good meal, go were the truckers go.” All for something like $2.50 I had orange juice, coffee, a big glass of milk, oatmeal, eggs, hash browns, bacon and toast. Maybe even a slice of pie. I don’t recall exactly. Kids in college have bottomless stomachs.

In Indiana we once competed with Notre Dame. That may be a good school, but they are my most loathed of athletic opponents. They were arrogant and cocky coming onto the floor, during the match, and leaving. They were good and beat us handily. But keeping that game face on all the time. As hosts they were the worst. When you compete in sports, you get to know one another’s character. Notre Dame, not so much. I’m sure that some good souls must have matriculated from there, but then I think of Regis Philbin. (I kid.)

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison in my senior year I had my moment of crowning glory. In a collegiate team there are three weapons: saber, foil, and épée. They differ in weapon design, style of play, and body target areas. For each weapon there are three team members competing, a total of nine players on each team. Each competitor fights all three from the opposing team. That means there are 27 bouts, and the team that gets at least 14 wins the match.

At that match in Madison I remember having finished two of my three bouts with our team score on the cusp of victory at 13 to 8 or 9. Naturally, with only one bout needed to win the match I felt confident we would win and felt no pressure coming into my own last match. Well, as I sat there watching the play, the score kept changing, but on Wisconsin’s side only. Finally, and to my shock, we were at 13 to 13 with one match to clinch the tournament. And guess who that honor fell to: C'est moi. You have to know that I was not all that top a performer and my senior year was rather sketchy up until that point. But, remember I did hint that this would be my pinochle [or is it “pineapple,” Mr. Gorsey? This is an obscure cinematic reference which you either get or you don’t].

So here’s how it went. The épée is a weapon with an electrically actuated tip. A touche can be scored anywhere on the body. [Coach Perry insisted that the main target in épée is the wrist. It’s the closest vulnerable spot. Points can be scored anywhere else on the body; but if, for example, you are able to hit the chest, you’re just too close defensively.] The one place that a point can’t be registered is on the weapon itself. An epee has a large round guard (to protect that wrist, remember) and it gets a lot of hits there. So, before the start of the match the competitors have to check each other’s weapon to verify that the guard is grounded, won’t register if hit. During this transaction, my competitor—who I recall went to the NCAA fencing finals—gets real close and whispers, “I feel sorry for you.” My reposte, “Let’s fence.” He lost the bout right there and then. Trash talk is for pussies.

Because the match went down to the proverbial wire, with mine being the deciding bout, there was a good bit of jubilation with the win and after all the suspense. Coach Perry and I were carried off the floor into the locker room on the shoulders of the team. Nice, huh? In the locker room we enjoyed champagne. Tom Kostecke and I, buddies in crime, had secreted a bottle of the bubbly for just such an occasion. Speaking of crime, Tom went on to be a G-Man and is currently a Private Eye. I asked him why he wanted to get into that field and he said that he liked to get to carry a gun and wear a badge. Well, OK!

My weapon throughout my competitive carreer was the épée. But Coach Perry had the idea that because I was a big guy, the saber would also be a good fit. During one summer he gave me private lessons in the saber. A cardinal point in defense with the saber is to always come back to en garde with the guard of the weapon facing outward to your side. In that position any attack to that side is by default protected. I say that is a cardinal rule because the coach drilled on it on every move. Since it was summer and very warm, I wore a t-shirt not the typical thick protective canvas jacket. The other thing about the saber you should also know is that the blade is very flexible. Think, metal whip. So every time I would go back to the en garde position the Coach would come back with a solid whack to my defended side. I mostly got it about the importance of the ready position; but that flexible blade made it around more than a few times and I went home with a nice collection of welts as tangible reminders to, as they say, keep my guard up.

Saber of the three weapons most resembles a fight. To be good at it you have to be an aggressive fighter. I am quite sure that, without having said so directly, Coach Perry was also attempting in those taps on the shoulder to get my boil up. It takes a lot to unleash the monster that lurks in the heart of this good boy. I always say that my downfall was that I was a good boy. Now I realize that all of it, what in you is both good and bad, is there to be used. Appropriately so, to be sure; but all of it nonetheless.

It seems that in reminiscing about my days as a varsity fencer and Coach Perry, the road trips are prominent in my recall. As I said, the Coach was into the making of the whole man and we had our training in the social graces on every trip.

Each of us got a small stipend for expenses on each road trip. The Coach appreciated the good life and so we sought out the best restaurant in each town to have our team big night out. In Indianapolis we dined at the King Cole Restaurant and I remember enjoying a most decadent Strawberries Romanoff. Whenever we could we would stop at Win Schuler’s Restaurant in Marshall, Michigan. At Win Schuler’s you sat down to house appetizers of Swedish meat balls in gravy, a big celery/radish/olive plate, and that crock of spicy cheddar cheese spread. Lots of different kinds of breads. Some rolls got tossed around and the Coach was a good sport about that. College guys eat big. At the time at Win Shuler’s they had a deal that if you could polish off their generous cut of roast prime rib of beef, you could have another for free. I did. A champ at last.

One time in an unexpected and rather personal moment Coach Perry got me aside and made me promise that if I saw that as he aged he was becoming senile, I would say something.

Well, Coach… Keep on goin’, you’re lookin’ good.

After attempting to get in touch with Mr. Perry through the Athletic Department at the University of Detroit Mercy I learned from the Athletic Director there that he had passed away in 2005. "...he is still remembered dearly by many and even has the Olympic Sports Hall of Fame area in Calihan Hall named in his honor."

I'm thinking again of his private lessons with me to make me into a saber man. And those whacks to the arm. As a teacher now myself I understand that there are lessons that are given, more in the doing than in the saying. I don't know what Coach Perry saw in me at the time, but his actions were, and still are, powerfully instructive to me in the broad life context.

Even then I knew that somehow those whacks to the arm to confirm my defense in the en garde position in saber had more in them than just drilling in correct form into muscle memory. I realize those slaps were attempts to open me to my inner strengths. In terms of saber, to tap into my aggressive and assertive power. In me, those strengths were held in check, bottled up, kept there from days of being a good boy, going along sometimes to the disregard of my inner message, and living under the rule of "children should be seen and not heard." As children we all have to learn to conform to the prevailing conditions. Hopefully, along the way, we have the fortune to learn from wise teachers how to live not only appropriately to the times and circumstances, but also authentically, true to our inner voice and true to the situation, clearly seen.

There is a quote from the Gnostic Gospels attributed to Jesus: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." Not to make too much of a point about his excellence as a teacher, but the point has not been lost on me even after all these years.

In gratitude, Mr. Perry.

From Todd Dressell, Head Coach Men's & Woman's Fencing, University of Detroit Mercy:


Thanks for your note. Your memories of Maestro Perry are very similar to my own.

When I started Fencing at Oakland University, I knew him as the “Old Man” from UDM. He comforted me during a competition when a strip accident resulted in my broken sabre going into my opponent’s leg. He was a very kind man. Later when I opened a fencing club, Maestro was the first man I called to get his advice and input. He taught me how to lead a team of fencers, how to be patient and wiley. He was a very clever man. I have a photo in our practice room it is a fencer Terrell Reber fencing at a home meet. In the foreground, there is Terrell, the coach at the time Roz Boghikian refereeing with several bouts going on up and down the arena floor. In the background, out of focus but unmistakable, is Maestro Perry; sitting on the bleachers with a fencer, hands in front showing/explaining something or another. In my fencing room he is always there, in the background. He always enjoyed the background, and watching the result of his teaching, guidance or engineered situations. He was a very wise man.

Me To Coach Dressell:

Yes, I remember, he liked "Maestro."

His arch rival during my time on the team was the coach at Wayne State University, Isvan Danosi. (He also passed away in 2005.) He was also called “maestro” by his fencers. A very flamboyant Hungarian gentleman who held himself with a kind of 19th Century noble bearing, thick accent. And, the exotic name to back it up. Maestro Danosi seemed to relate to Coach Perry as if on some higher plane. Maybe it was just his demeanor only. Even so, Mr. Perry surely must have felt his equal having that title “maestro” for himself.

1 comment:

Tom Kostecke said...

Very nice memories David...Glad you didn't mention that I got kicked off the team 3 times in 3 years, but always came back. Didn't someone write an article in the Varsity News that I was slated to be an All American fencer in my senior year? I did make Coach Perry's retirement party in the early 90's at the Polish Century Club. I don't know if he is still alive...but I'll check on it. O by the by, I did not see in your blog on fencing that I won an exhibition fencing match against you on national TV (just kidding...it was Public TV). Also, when we fenced at ND, and we had already given up more then 14 match points to ND, C. Perry put me in (epee). I was down by 3 points with time running out. Bruce's brother was ref'n the match. I actually came back to win...scoring 4 points in a matter of seconds. Bruce's Brother told me after the match that that was the BEST fencing match/comeback he had ever seen. The Guy from ND, unfortunately, committed suicide later that day.

All kidding aside, thanks for mentioning me...We did have good times back then...Love you Brother...Tom