STRICKEN AND BEREAVED
On May 15th, 2015, students and teachers of kenjutsu, the art of Japanese sword, converged for a special opening of a new dojo of Savvos Savopoulos’s Sensei’s sword school. When they set out on their joyful pilgrimage, they couldn’t have known that Mr. Savopoulos, his wife Amy, their 10-year-old son Philip, and their housekeeper Veralicia Figueora had been brutally slain after 24 hours of captivity on May 14th, just one day earlier.
It’s not often that a national-level story touches me in such a personal way. I’ve had the honor of meeting Mr. Savopoulos last year in Pittsburgh, when he came to celebrate our dojo’s 40th anniversary.
After the shock and the sadness for the Savopoulos family and Ms. Figueora, after navigating the grief and loss and rage I’ve felt since I’ve learned of the mass murder, I’ve come to realize that this tragedy affected me, and presumably my fellow students, on several unrelated levels.
The human loss and suffering can never be minimized or overshadowed. Yet in this case, there’s another twist. Mr. Savopoulos’ death cut deeper than just another act of evil and avarice. This man, a teacher, well respected by his students and colleagues, had dedicated decades of his life to the study and preservation of an ancient Japanese martial art.
His death is like smashing a Michelangelo statue.
His knowledge is irreplaceable, for every student and teacher of kenjutsu – after many years of study – comes to find his or her own meaning in the waza, or the form, of each technique.
Each and every teacher is a work of art, unique in both skill and insight, irreplacable, yet willing to pass that hard-won knowledge onto younger generations.
Martial arts can’t be gleaned from a book, can’t be learned by watching videos alone. The kinesthetic knowledge, the muscle memory of minute balance shifts and the translation of each little movement into its true incarnation at full speed, needs to be taught by hand, in person. Not just words, not just sight and sound, but touch and the use of the opponent’s body form the fabric of understanding of an art that is ancient, graceful, esoteric. Its extinction is kept at bay by martial artists – only a few in each generation – whose understanding is complete enough to keep it alive, and who selflessly give of themselves in passing it on. They are the custodians of ancient techniques and new explanations. They make history come alive.
The loss of Savvas Savopoulos is a human one: a father, a husband, a son. The loss of his wife, child, and Ms. Figueora, who put her two children through college while working as their housekeeper, will never pale to their loved ones.
The premature, violent, and senseless death of Mr. Savopoulos is also a great loss to the martial arts community. I grieve, and I bow my head in respect to his legacy.