What do you do when everything you believe in comes crashing to a halt?

Rob Wilson is dead.

Four words. Four words is all it takes to bring the most stalwart of us to our knees.

The words paralyze us. They make us cold and numb because there was absolutely nothing we could do about what happened. Nothing at all. Even if we were there, within reach, would it have made a difference?

Who knows?

All I know is that this is the second friend to have passed on this year. I didn’t know him as well as I would have liked, but his exit has left a void and I feel compelled to fill it with all of the wonderful things that I knew about him.

The First Day

I walked into my trial class at High Park Martial Arts, ready to evaluate a class to determine whether or not I wanted to sign up. Since it was my first time there, I didn’t have to wear a full Gi unless I wanted to sign up, so I wore a black t-shirt and my old Taekwondo Tournament Gi pants.

I wouldn’t say that I was nervous. Perhaps to an observer I should have been, clothed in black while everyone else was wearing white Gis. But I had done this before. Excitement was more the feeling that was coursing through my veins.

We did a line-up and then a warm-up.

Sensei then sent Rob (Mr. Wilson) down to my end of the room to take me through the basics.

I remember my first impression of Rob. Soft spoken and hearty, with a sly smile and a reserved manner of speaking, he presented himself without ego. He was a man put in front of me to do a job, and that was the way it was. No more. No less…

Rob: Hi, my name is Rob Wilson, but you can just call me Mr. Wilson in the Dojo.
Jorge: Nice to meet you, Mr. Wilson. I’m Jorge.
Rob: Nice to meet you too, Jorge. Well, I’ve been made to understand that you have some experience in Martial Arts. That’s great! [Rob smiles, almost laughing a little.] But I’m pretty set in my ways and Sensei has asked me to show you a few things and I don’t really like to deviate from instructions, if that’s okay with you.
Jorge: Certainly!
Rob: Okay then, let’s begin!

And so we went through the basics.

Having done similar things before, I could spend some time observing my instructor. He was technically perfect. Every move was precise. Rob’s presentation of the most basic movements of our Art was flawlessly delivered. Nothing was missed, so even someone with next to no level of experience in Karate would only have themselves to blame if they couldn’t perform these movements by the end of the class. Such was the level of his instructional proficiency.

Above all else, he was patient. His methodology was the product of years of repetition, which made his level of interest in what he was doing impressive. I’ve seen a lot of jaded Martial Artists who loathe spending time with a neophyte. But not Rob.

Rob spent the entire time making his students feel like they were the most important person in the world, even if it was just for an hour.

When the class was over, I thanked him for his attention. He gave a curt nod and his patented half-smile and went downstairs to get changed.

Rob was one of the reasons that I went to Sensei right after class and signed up for a full year.

The Years That Followed

After those first classes I didn’t have much interaction with Rob, at least not for a while.

I eventually moved on to the Orange/Green/Blue Belt class, where Rob was not an assistant.

I would see him from time to time. He would always ask how I was doing in my training. He also would ask about Mrs. Jorge. Always a polite conversationalist.

Later on, when I started going out to the local pub after classes and gradings, I would manage to have brief conversations with him about anything and everything. The conversations never really lasted long not because of any disinterest on each other’s part, but more due to the number of people vying for this quiet man’s attention. Although they were brief they were still very enjoyable.

The next time I interacted with Rob in the dojo (in an official capacity) was for one of my gradings, where he was tasked to assist me in some Kata resistance.

After that grading we chatted in the bar about my performance. I liked the fact that he was very realistic when I spoke of all of the flaws in my performance. He didn’t try and dissuade me, but he did not try to make me feel bad about them either. Rob’s philosophy was one of constant learning. A true “learn from your mistakes” way of thinking. After I listed my mistakes, he nodded thoughtfully and put forth his opinions of what he liked about my performance.

Always a gentleman. Always kind.

A few years later I had the privilege of observing him in action at one of his gradings. It wasn’t a surprise to see how technically proficient he was. Like a classical Martial Arts hero from the pages of history, he moved with grace and purpose. His Kiai was quiet, but filled with strength. Actually, remembering his Kiai always brings a smile to my face, because he sounded a little like Sid Vicious.

And so it went, running into him in the Dojo, exchanging pleasantries, sitting with him at the pub and chatting.

The Final Year

The last year for me was filled with the birth of my daughter, my quest for Black Belt and a new job, among other things.

Needless to say, it was pretty busy.

All throughout that hectic year, Rob was always ready with an honest compliment, a motivational tip, or just a genuine smile. It provided a positive boost, whether I needed it or not.

When I attained my rank of Shodan, I started attending the Black Belt class on Mondays.

Rob asked if I wanted to come out for a drink at a newer pub with a more eclectic collection of beers (Rob liked to expand his repertoire of beers), but unfortunately things were very hectic at home and at work. I told him that while I couldn’t go at the time, the evening would soon arrive when I could.

Earlier this month, the day after our Dojo Birthday Picnic (where he asked how my family was doing, as usual), I decided to go out. I figured I would see him at the pub, so I didn’t tell him I would be going.

Unfortunately, he didn’t show. I found out later that he wasn’t feeling well (allergies), so he headed home.

Later that same week, he passed away.

At the memorial service, I learned that he touched many, many people. He achieved a balance with his life, compartmentalizing work, music, Karate, travel, family, and much more. Yet, throughout all of those facets was a common thread comprised of decency, interest and genuine kindness. People went up to the podium to let us all know how much Rob meant to them. Some played songs in tribute, and a few of our Karate friends and I wrote some words that were spoken by another friend of ours in honour of Rob. Sensei even read one of Rob’s essays, causing a lot of us to choke up. It was as if Rob was speaking from the afterlife.

Even though I wasn’t a close friend of Rob’s, I have a void in my heart where there was not one before. The enormity of his passing has still not hit me. It’s still surreal.

He is a common element in all of our lives and those whose souls he touched are lucky to have had the chance to know him.

I will miss you, Rob. I am certain that these sentiments are echoed by everyone who knew you.

Rob Wilson – Friend and Sandan
Photo courtesy of Dave Battler

12 Responses

  1. You’ve written him a lovely and moving tribute. It’s easy to see how much he touched you.

  2. I’m very sorry to hear about the loss of your friend, Jorge. Your words about him are very touching.

  3. You have summed him up well Jorge. He was a blue or new brown belt when I first met him in 1998. And he always set a great example even then. I stood next to him every Saturday when we helped with the 10-14 year old kids class for the last 5 years. I never met a finer, more modest person. Always helping, always handling even the most difficult situations calmly and with grace. I never saw him frustrated in all that time (mind you I heard from 1 or 2 of his closest friends that there were actually katas that frustrated him at one time). And he was in good shape when he died at 54. Kind of gives one a start if one is over 50 and not anywhere in the shape Rob was in.

  4. For someone to leave that kind of impression with you, Jorge… He must have been outstanding.

  5. This is a very beautiful sentiment…

  6. My sympathies go out to you, the rest of your friends from the dojo and Rob’s family and friends.

  7. What a tribute. My sympathies.

  8. …thank you for letting us see such a great man and your friend through your eyes. My thoughts and prayers are with you and Mr. Wilson’s family.

  9. Rob spent the entire time making his students feel like they were the most important person in the world, even if it was just for an hour.

    We meet these people so rarely; I’m so sorry you had to lose such a precious and rare gift.

    An absolutely lovely tribute. Lovely.

  10. This heartfelt reflection on your relationship with Rob caused me to choke up. Well written, my friend. He was as fortunate to have met you as you were to have met him.

  11. Sorry to hear about this 😦

  12. Sorry to hear about your loss. A great tribute for somebody who, by the sounds of it, was an exceptional human being.

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