The City of Kokomo has long been a basketball and baseball town. Years of tradition on the hardwood brought the likes of Jimmy Rayl, Jim “Goose” Ligon, and Tico Brown into homes and the madness that is best known as Hoosier Hysteria. Despite the many skilled basketball players and baseball player, Kokomo also is known, but not always recognized as a martial arts town.
Kokomo has played host of a bevy of martial art masters who are known worldwide. Early on, James Kennedy was the local karate master, but his life was cut short following a head-on automobile accident in 1972.
Eddie Bethea came to the Kokomo area through Grissom Air Force base. He served in the Air Force in Vietnam in 1972 and returned to the Kokomo area in 1973. Prior to his tour of duty, Bethea began teaching small classes but dedicated to teaching martial arts more regularly in 1973. By 1976, he was ready to open a school and pass on the teachings of Hanshi Judan Nakazato. Bethea had been studying karate since 1966 where he trained while in Okinawa, Japan. In 1981, he retired from the Air Force and began competing in competition and growing his school.
Around the same time that Bethea came to town, another martial artist, Phil Wade, and his wife, Judy, were teaching as well. The Wades and Bethea would spar together, learning new techniques.
In 1983, a young Donnie Michael came to study under Bethea after his sister was brutally attacked at a local teenage hangout. Michael had always been interested in karate, and when his parent decided to put his sister in lessons, he insisted on tagging along. Bethea said he didn’t think Michael’s parents thought he would see the age of 21.
“I was a little rough,” Michael said. “I was what is considered today a bully.”
Bethea considered his way of teaching a bit antiquated, but he pushed Michael well beyond what he ever believed he was capable of and blossomed in the world of martial arts. Once he was ready, Michael approached Bethea about beginning his own school, and the pair agreed on a boundary, splitting the city in half. Although they were no longer training exclusively together, Bethea and Michael have remained incredibly close to one another.
Bethea has won world championships in three decades while his pupil has picked up 10 world titles. Both have been recognized by their peers, receiving inductions into the PKC Elite Society and Trias International Society, to name a few.
Phil Wade also came to Kokomo through Grissom Air Force Base. His reach within the martial arts community goes very deep. He and his wife Judy’s school, the Kokomo Fire Dragons, was a powerhouse. The Wades were community-based and focused on helping others. Out of the Kokomo Fire Dragons, current owner of the Fire Dragons Steve Ables and San Lum Kung Fu Academy owner Christopher Kirby were products of the Wade’s teachings.
Kirby studied judo at the YMCA as a child and continued his learning while he was in the service. During a tour of duty in the Gulf War, Kirby was injured. When he returned to Kokomo, he started taking his son, Patrick, to the Wades to learn martial arts. Wade would watch Kirby closely, and after two years of observation, approached Kirby about participating in martial arts as he knew the movements would be conducive to his knee and back injuries and improve his quality of life. Wade was right. Kirby improved and flourished under his teachings. He is also a member of the PKC Elite Society (inducted in 2015).
The lineage and legacy of martial arts in Kokomo stretch even beyond these four dojos. Yet, several of the martial arts masters who are renowned by their peers are settled right here.
“I speak to a lot of students and tell them that we have these people here, and they don’t know how blessed they are to have them,” said Kirby. “Some places, you have to travel hundreds of miles to be near anyone of such great caliber. We have them here.”