A boy had worked hard to reach the level of black belt.
Master Donald Gambrel was determined to ensure the boy achieved that big milestone in taekwondo.
Little did Gambrel know that would be his 67th and final student to finish the test.
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Gambrel’s Martial Arts in Seymour shut down March 18 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and wasn’t able to reopen, so Gambrel decided to close after 20-plus years.
“At that time, we thought we were going to be able to get back in April, but it kept dragging on and dragging on,” he said. “Financially, rent was piling up and utilities were piling up, and it just got to where we couldn’t do it. We would never recover.”
Plus, Gambrel said it was getting harder to draw in students.
“For every 10 kids that come in, I would keep maybe one because it’s too much work. They would come in and have fun for a month, and then they would be gone,” he said. “It’s not just me that had that trouble. Everybody in the martial arts field had that trouble.”
Making the decision to close was not easy, Gambrel said.
“I still miss it,” the 78-year-old said. “It doesn’t mean something won’t open up one of these days. I’ve had offers to go teach seminars, which I might do.”
To honor all of his years of dedication to martial arts, his family recently organized a surprise party at the shelter house at Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour. Among the attendees were nearly 30 former students.
“Some of them I hadn’t seen in years. We told war stories all night long,” he said, laughing. “Some of them came quite a ways to get there. I had probably 100 emails from other former students that just couldn’t get there.”
The party gave him positive closure from having to close his business.
“I would rather go out that way than have to go out because you couldn’t be effective anymore,” he said. “I probably stayed longer than I should have stayed anyway, but I was still having fun.”
Gambrel was born in Shelbyville and raised in Tampico.
The Boys Club in Shelbyville had a boxing ring, a basketball court and a couple of pool tables, and Gambrel was drawn to the prize fighting and golden gloves program.
When he and his family moved to Tampico, martial arts wasn’t available in the area. But after he graduated from high school in 1960, he went to Purdue University and became involved in its judo club.
He wound up dropping out of college and taking martial arts courses in Evansville and New Albany.
Then in 1962, he got married, and he and his wife, Ruth, moved to Seymour and started a family.
In 1981, Ceraland in Columbus started a martial arts program, and Gambrel’s youngest son decided he wanted to give it a try, so they did it together.
“He dropped out blue belt and I just kept on going,” Gambrel said, smiling. “We had a couple friends that did it with us. It either gets in your blood or it doesn’t. It’s what it does to you inside. It changes your whole outlook on everything.”
When that program closed, Gambrel bounced around to a couple of martial arts studios as he worked toward earning his black belt. He wound up receiving it while learning from Grand Master Edward Sell.
Once he received his black belt, he was asked to become an instructor.
“I had taught a little bit at different places, but this is actually getting into teaching classes,” Gambrel said.
He taught at schools in Bedford and Seymour. The one in Seymour was downtown for a while until moving out to a building just north of the city off of U.S. 31.
Starting his own school
After six months of teaching in the new location, Gambrel was asked to take over the business.
“They kept looking at me to do something. After a test, (the owner) said, ‘You ought to take over this school,’” Gambrel said.
He talked to his wife about the offer and decided to go through with it.
“There’s a lot of work to it, but he made it easy for me to take over the school and gave me a lot of help,” Gambrel said.
He inherited 10 students, which he said was good because it was difficult to recruit.
To help boost his numbers and become more confident in his teaching, Gambrel started doing other martial arts, attended a lot of seminars and became involved in the National Association of Professional Martial Artists.
During a convention in Clearwater, Florida, he learned about a program called Little Ninjas for ages 3 through 6.
“I bought the program and came back with that, and we jumped from about 10 or 15 students up to 125,” Gambrel said. “We had something like 50-something of these little 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds.”
He wound up teaching that program for about 10 years and said seven of them earned their black belt. Some of the homeschooled kids who took martial arts for physical education assisted with the Little Ninjas program.
Gambrel’s school remained in that location until about 10 years ago when it moved to what was then Tanger Outlet Mall.
Making an impact
Over the years, Gambrel said it’s difficult to estimate the number of people he taught.
He taught all over the country, and the ages ranged from 3 to those in their 80s.
There, however, is a big turnover in martial arts because it’s not for everybody, he said.
“Being able to put your hand through concrete and stuff like that, that’s part of it, knowing that you can do it,” he said.
That’s what he told all of his black belts.
“It’s not the fact that your ego lets you break these boards and stuff. It’s the fact that you’ve overcome yourself to make it possible to be able to put your hand through a solid object,” he said.
“It’s not their strength or how big they are, how much they weigh or what their size is or whether they are male or female,” he said. “They’ve conquered themselves to be able to put their hand through it. If you can do that, you can have anything in life.”
He likes hearing stories from students about how the martial arts skills they learned from him saved them in different situations.
“That’s a benefit that actually we did teach them something, they did remember it,” Gambrel said. “To me, that makes it all worthwhile.”
Some of his students went on to become teachers themselves, which also is rewarding to Gambrel.
“Grand Master Sell always taught the philosophy that you make the people that are under you into teachers, so we would look for whatever strength that that person had and build on that strength,” Gambrel said.
Emily Darlage of Brownstown is among the students who trained under Gambrel and became a teacher. A couple of years ago, she started her own business, Shining Spirit Warrior Martial Arts and Self-Defense.
She said she considers Gambrel her instructor, mentor, friend and second dad.
“I had hoped to still continue to train under him for several more years,” Darlage said. “Of course, he has discussed retirement in the past, but since we, his students that owe him so much, had been able to talk him out of it in the past, this is almost surreal to us.”
Those who were able to train under him are blessed and spoiled, she said.
“He was one of the absolute best. After attending some tournaments and conferences through the years, I can say this with honesty and confidence, “she said. “This means that we learned a multitude of styles, techniques and moral value that is unmatched by many. There are no words to express my personal gratitude.”
Darlage said she has shed many tears knowing the era of training under Gambrel is over for herself and others.
“He has taught me to keep training, keep fighting mentally, spiritually and physically. He has taught me to constantly strive to be better,” she said. “Therefore, it’s time to create a new era of schools and students. I still need to train, improve and advance, and I pray God leads me to the right people to help me do that.”
The new era means being the best instructor she can be, Darlage said.
“Even though I will fail at living up to the legend that I learned from, I can attempt to,” she said. “And despite all that is going on in this world, we can all attempt to be better. … None of us can live up to Master Gambrel, none of us can live up to Martin Luther King Jr. or Ms. Rosa Parks, but we can follow their leads for this new era.”
Gambrel said the biggest thing people learn in martial arts is to fail, and they can’t fail until they don’t fail anymore.
“So you learn in life, just because something doesn’t work out the first time doesn’t mean something else won’t,” he said. “That’s basically the biggest thing I always tried to get across to them — you keep failing until you don’t fail anymore and it will carry over — and you see them change. For the ones that it does change, it works miracles, it changes their life.”
Not only can they break a board or win a tournament, but they excel in school and daily life, build confidence and know how to carry themselves, he said.
“Self-defense is just secondary of what it teaches you because if you’re taught right, you never have to fight,” he said.