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Ross man, 86, earns 10th-degree black belt in Isshinryu karate system

| Thursday, July 25, 2013, 10:13 a.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
William H. Duessel, 86, of Ross shows his fists after practicing Isshinryu karate in his school, the Isshinryu Karate Academy on Greentree Road in the Westwood, on Tuesday, July 23, 2013.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
William H. Duessel, 86, of Ross (left) practices Isshinryu karate with Thomas Laurent, 54, of Baldwin in their school, the Isshinryu Karate Academy on in Westwood, on Tuesday, July 23, 2013.

William H. Duessel started what he thought would be a passing interest in martial arts in 1957.

“I just kept going. And it seemed I was improving ... so I just kept at it,” the Ross resident said.

Over the years, Duessel, 86, advanced in his knowledge of martial arts enough to reach a national milestone: This month he became the first American to receive the highest rank in the Isshinryu karate system, 10th Dan, or 10th-degree black belt.

“It was quite exciting,” Duessel said.

There are about 40,000 Isshin-Ryu World Karate Association members in the United States, the group said.

At 30, Duessel began taking jujitsu classes at the suggestion of a friend who was taking a class. The friend eventually dropped out; Duessel did not.

In 1962, Duessel began studying Isshinryu karate, a form of martial arts from Okinawa, Japan. In 1964, he received a first-degree black belt in Isshinryu from the founder of the style, Tatsuo Shimabuku, who trained Duessel for three months in Pittsburgh.

“When a student gets their first degree, it's like coming out of high school and you're starting college. You have to keep going,” Duessel said.

In 1970, Duessel and Charles A. Wallace started the Academy of Isshinryu Karate, Downtown. It became one of the largest schools of its kind on the East Coast, partly because of a growing interest in karate spurred by famed martial artist Bruce Lee and the TV show “Kung Fu,” Duessel said.

As more karate schools opened in the suburbs and interest in karate waned, Wallace and Duessel relocated the school to a YMCA on Wood Street, Downtown, in 1979, and later to two other YMCA locations.

In 1993, the school moved to its location on Greentree Road in Westwood and its name became Isshinryu Karate Academy. It is a nonprofit run by 12 instructors, including Duessel, he said.

Duessel retired from a job that required him to put asbestos in buildings. The work left him with respiratory problems, but karate has helped him physically, he said.

“In the conditioning, we emphasize a lot of posture. You have to stand erect. I think that's a major thing,” he said.

Duessel is the sensei, or chief instructor, at the academy in Westwood, but he no longer competes in karate challenges, he said.

There are 10 degrees of black belts; Duessel received his ninth in 1991.

His recent accomplishment is a testament to his devotion to the purity of martial arts, said John Hughes, who owns the Isshinryu School of Karate in Vienna, N.J., and began training under Duessel in 1985.

Other practitioners try to change the art to make it “flashier, but he maintains the system the way it was taught. To me, that's what the martial arts is all about,” Hughes said.

Duessel is a widower and father of five surviving, adult children; one of his daughters is deceased.

He splits his time between Ross and a home in Indiantown, Fla., where he spends winters.

This winter will be his last in Florida because he wants to stay close to his children in the Pittsburgh area, he said.

“They're very helpful to me if I need something. As someone gets older, it's nicer to be closer to home, I think,” he said.

Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or

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