Charlie Bishop has known success in his life. His business, Bishop’s Auto Body, has flourished for 54 years and is a household name in the Bucksport area. Bishop recently achieved not only a personal milestone but also an impressive rarity in the martial arts world. In October 2009, he earned his 10th-degree black belt through the Maine Ketsugo & Karate Association at his longtime dojo, Tracy’s Karate-Ju-Jitsu in Ellsworth.
That alone is laudable, but it’s even more so when you discover that Bishop is 79 years old.
Bishop’s journey began in 1972, when his brother’s karate involvement piqued Bishop’s interest. When he saw the sign outside Tracy’s, which had opened in 1971, he decided to join. But at 42, “I thought I was kind of old to get going,” he said.
He also had asthma problems and wondered how the sport would affect him. Instead, his asthma improved, along with his health, stamina and overall wellness. He kept at it with a passion, training twice a week for two hours each session, working for seven years before attaining his black belt in 1979. It took another 10 years of training to achieve fifth degree and until 2002 to reach ninth. It was seven more years of hard work for Bishop to advance to 10th-degree black belt — a rare, Holy Grail achievement for a martial artist. Out of countless thousands of students at Tracy’s since 1971, he was the first to do it.
“Most people don’t stay 38 years doing anything,” said dojo founder Dennis Tracy. “That’s a long time to do any one thing.”
Attaining a belt that high involves several hours of testing and review by a promotional board of members from all over Maine. Sometimes, students don’t pass the test. “There are no gifts,” said Tracy. “There are no guarantees they’ll make it.”
Success happens through commitment, and Bishop has been extremely committed. In 38 years, he almost never has missed a class. Outside class, he has been active in the sport in many ways. He operated a dojo in Belfast from 1985 until 1993. In 2000, he was named executive vice president of the MKKA. The MKKA named him Student of the Year in 1978 and 2002.
Bishop said it was hard to put into words what taking the 10th degree test was like, that it was something you’d have to endure to understand. It involved “a lot of experience, things I don’t really talk about,” Bishop said. “But if you’d tested for 10th degree, then you’d know what it was.”
Tracy’s stringent regimen means beginners don’t fight for several months, and nobody earns a black belt for at least five years. The formula has worked for nearly 40 years, as Tracy’s has trained thousands of martial artists and has more than 100 active black belts at dojos in Maine and Canada.
“It’s always the same: consistent,” said black belt Norm Jacques, who has been a student there for 33 years. “You know what you’re going to get, and everybody’s treated the same. It’s like a family now.”
Jacques said the appeal is learning new things and meeting new people. Working out with Bishop, he said, has been “quite an honor.” He stressed that Bishop has worked hard for what he has attained. “They didn’t just give it to him because he’s a nice guy,” Jacques said.
Longevity is nothing new at the dojo. Many students have come for decades, and about 80 percent of students are family members of others who have worked out there. Some students are children or grandchildren of past students. One student, at age 82, is a sixth-degree black belt who started 26 years ago. But aside from Tracy and his wife, Bishop has the longevity record.
Bishop encourages anyone of any age to consider getting into martial arts, and has a simple response to those who think they’re too old — as he once thought in 1972. “My answer is, ‘If you think you’re too old, I think you are,’” he said. “I’ve always said, ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?’”
Mastering martial arts is in part about learning how to fight, but Bishop said it’s much more than that. It’s something he uses every day, in one way or another. His 38 years of work has been a major force in his life in all those ways: learning new things, teaching others and applying the vast discipline to all aspects of his life.
“It’s a good journey all the way through,” Bishop said. “My view on it is enjoy the way up — no matter how long it takes, enjoy what you’re doing. You go along in life, get out of it what you can, and give out as much as you can.”