Forging a Path for Half a Century
The year 1969 was a glorious time to be alive. A new home cost $15,000. Ninety percent of kids walked to school. Woodstock took place. Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, Mario Puzo released The Godfather and a little-known dojo called Allegheny Shotokan began operating in the suburbs of Pittsburgh.
by Bill Viola Jr.
This was the golden era of karate, and those who wore a crisp white gi and a black belt had a special swagger. The martial arts were provocative and mysterious, and if you wanted to learn their secrets, Bill Viola was your man. Unbeknownst to him, the Viola name and Pittsburgh karate would soon resonate throughout the region.
Viola was a no-nonsense disciplinarian who lived the mantra, “The more you sweat in here, the less you bleed out there." With this philosophy of intensity, he trained thousands in the art of self-protection. Over the ensuing half century, his powerful brand of punches and kicks camouflaged life's most important lessons, those that revolve around respect, discipline and focus. Among his many messages to his students: “Character is a commodity that can't be bought, only built."
The confidence Viola instilled in his students manifested on and off the mat, in the classroom as well as in the boardroom. “It's that indomitable spirit that builds champions in life," Viola would say. “Our dojo is a family."
In 2019 Allegheny Shotokan Karate celebrates its 50th anniversary. The family-owned and operated dojo now boasts three generations of Violas to carry on the legacy. All five of Bill Viola's children are black belts, and as his eldest son, I now head the school. My daughter Gabby and son Will are fixtures at the studio, as well.
Now 71, my father, a ninth degree, still teaches his black-belt class every Monday, offering a reminder to all that karate is a lifelong journey. That's evidenced by people like Ray Adams, 76, who joined the club in 1971. “I just earned my master rank and have no plans of slowing down," he said. “My next test will be in my 80s."
In 2011 my father was honored in a permanent exhibit at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum and Senator John Heinz History Center that recognizes him as the co-creator of the sport of mixed martial arts. He and I received the Champion Associations Willie Stargell MVP Award in 2011 for community service. In 2017 we were included in the book Who's Who in the Martial Arts: The Legends Edition.
My father's life was the focus of the Amazon best-seller Godfathers of MMA, which inspired the 2017 Showtime documentary Tough Guys. I wrote the book and served as a producer for the film and am currently adapting it for the big screen.
Through the years, our dojo has built a reputation as the most successful sport-karate school in the Pittsburgh region. That followed its grooming of the only Pan-American gold medalists in both traditional karate and kickboxing, as well competitors who own countless national, international and world titles.
As karate approaches its Olympic debut in 2020, my father is being recognized for having been instrumental in the movement. His involvement started when he hosted the USA Karate Junior Olympics at the University of Pittsburgh in 1992 under the auspices of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Clearly, the dojo has always had its finger on the pulse of the martial arts, and it continues to play a pivotal role in the Pittsburgh karate community.
Over the past 50 years, Allegheny Shotokan Karate has welcomed everyone from children struggling with autism to Olympic-level competitors. It doesn't matter whether the person is a professional athlete or a teenager who's coping with bullies. Everyone is on his or her own personal journey of self-enlightenment and courage. Our goal is to help them reach their potential and go beyond.
That formula for success was born in 1955 when my dad got his first taste of combat while studying boxing with a family friend, the legendary Marion “Slugger" Klingensmith. He discovered the Asian arts in the early 1960s. “My friend Medick Capirano picked up karate at WVU in the ROTC program," my father said. “I thought I was pretty tough, but he threw me all over the room when we'd work out on the weekends. I was addicted."
While attending California State University, my father continued training with the All-American Karate Federation, an offshoot of the Japanese Karate Association. He earned rank under pioneers Robert Trias and George Anderson.
He selected the name “Allegheny" for his school because of its original location in Allegheny County. The “Shotokan" portion of the name was a no-brainer since his base style was the traditional Japanese art. My dad began teaching in 1969, and the first student to sign up was former California State football player Denny Costello.
The first teacher to come on board was Keith Bertoluzzi. The former master of ceremonies at the Holiday House in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, Bertoluzzi used his connections to invite visiting celebrities to attend karate class, among them several members of the Beach Boys. “Karate in the '60s and '70s was so popular," my father recalled. “We [instructors] were the rock stars."
As evidence, he cited the fact that by 1971, the local school district, known for its progressive policies, offered him the opportunity to teach a regular elective karate course. It was the first in an American public school.
One reason Allegheny Shotokan Karate remains a leader in the local community is its dedication to philanthropy and community service. I've participated in charitable work since my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, when I established Kumite International collegiate scholarships. The partnership program with the Western Pennsylvania Police Athletic League and Eckert Seamans Law Firm allocated a whopping $50,000 for karate scholarships. The program made national news when Lynn Swann, chairman of George W. Bush's Council of Physical Fitness and Sports, and I presented the scholarships at the 2004 Pittsburgh Fitness Expo/Kumite Classic.
The dojo has raised tens of thousands of dollars for various causes, including the battle against muscular dystrophy and Parkinson's disease. In 2017 former state Sen. Sean Logan and I launched Kick Parkinson's Disease, a cause that was close to both parties. (Logan was diagnosed with Parkinson's while in his mid-40s, and I spent years caring for my grandmother until she passed away from neurodegenerative complications.)
The members of our dojo have since made it their mission to Kick Parkinson's disease — literally. Each year, hundreds of students assemble to execute kicks nonstop over a distance of 1 mile in conjunction with Logan's PIND (Pittsburgh Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases) 5K. In 2018 they did so in record-setting heat, bumping their two-year total to $15,000 in donations. Over the past three years, the event has raised more than $1 million in appropriations, grants and sponsorships, with every dollar earmarked for testing and research in hopes of finding a cure.