Rigby’s Karate Academy owners bowing out

Reese and Judy Rigby are retiring their business, Rigby Karate Academy, at the end of December, ending a 47 year karate school journey in Dover. (Submitted photo/John Mollura Photography)

DOVER — Reese and Judy Rigby are headed on a well-earned “warm vacation” after their karate school, Rigby’s Karate Academy, closes its doors for the last time Dec. 23.

Mr. Rigby or Sensei, as his wife and students lovingly call him, has been teaching Isshin-Ryuū karate for 47 years, a form of karate deriving from Okinawa, Japan. He opened the school March 1, 1973. It would take him another 20 years before he bowed out of his full-time job laying bricks and operating launches for river pilots and into full-time teaching alongside his wife who, by then, had become one of his most accomplished students.

“Four nights a week, I didn’t see the man,” she smiled. “And the passion he had for it was way over the top. So, I said I was going to start classes.”

Mr. Rigby not only didn’t believe her at first, but he also didn’t believe she would stick to the cause – until she became his first black belt student. She is now an eighth degree black belt, just one degree lower than her Sensei and husband who holds a ninth degree black belt.

Teaching became a passion of hers, as well, affording her the opportunity to spend more time with her husband while making an impact on children from all over the Dover and surrounding areas. She would eventually retire from a successful 23-year career with the city of Dover, starting in the electric department and ending as the city’s human resources director.

Before Ms. Rigby started teaching with her husband, the school only accepted students eight years and older. But she had a different vision.

“She saw that there was more income with children,” Mr. Rigby said.

The school, located in downtown Dover up several flights of stairs at the time, began accepting younger children, creating a larger impact which also required a larger space.

Expansion was inevitable for the successful duo, who found a new location just miles down the road in Tudor Industrial Complex.

“When we walked inside, I saw this, I saw a karate school,” Mr. Rigby said. “But Mr. Tudor didn’t think we could open a full-time karate school here.”

A year later, however, they had become so successful in their new, full-time location that Mr. Tudor built another room so the karate school could continue to grow.

“We grew pretty fast in the new building. Within a year, we had increased our student population significantly. We were fine; we made it,” Mr. Rigby said.

Over the years, Mr. Rigby wrote a book and both teachers were inducted into the Isshin-Ryu hall of fame. They also found themselves teaching the children of the children they previously taught — that’s when they knew it was time to consider their second retirement.

“At 68, we started thinking about retirement. We promised each other at 70, we would retire. Even though we enjoy what we do, we’d like to see what it’s like,” Mr. Rigby said.

The pair turned 70 over the summer.

“I’m not getting out of martial arts,” Mr. Rigby, said. “We’re just getting out of everyday teaching.”

With spare time at the ready, the Rigby’s plan on extending their annual warm vacation until they feel like coming home instead of being required to be home for a fresh batch of karate classes in January. They also want to lead seminars and other classes across the country while finding time for pickleball, lifting weights, working out and Tai Chi classes occasionally.

The Rigbys might also share dinner together, something they haven’t really been able to do much of over the last 47 years.

“And we’re okay with that,” Mr. Rigby said.

Ms. Rigby chimed in after him, saying, “It’s just what we’ve done all these years. We don’t sit down for dinner here because we’re teaching. We smile at each other and talk in passing.”

The decision to retire was bittersweet for the Rigbys, she added, but they know the time is right.

“We have seen so many kids grow up here. When we decided to do this, we said we’ve got such a great group of kids now. They’re just so great and good competitors. They’re going to grow up and go to college and then we’re going to have another great and good group of kids. When is it going to end? Now, the kids have kids. We’ve been doing it for so long and there’s two of us,” Ms. Rigby said.

“There’s been a lot of emotion around here in the last few weeks,” Mr. Rigby admitted with tears in his own eyes. “It’s just a rewarding feeling to know what you’ve done for people. Many, many, many people call this their second family. There’s going to be a lot of tears around here. There have been a lot already.”

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