TALLMADGE – A martial arts grandmaster celebrated his 89th birthday July 9 with more than 70 years of instruction and a school at 290 West Ave., Suite D.

Grandmaster Gene Chicoine, known as the Sleeping Tiger, had a private party with a few students but has taught martial arts to thousands over the years.

Chicoine said what people see in the movies or on television is staged martial arts, choreographed for the camera. Martial arts was considered combat training and outlawed when communists took over China.

“The Chinese invented every bit of martial arts,” he said. “All the styles of martial arts blossomed from five internal and five external teachings.”

Chicoine’s journey into martial arts began when he was 15 years old in 1945. His personal life had turned tragic with his parents' divorce and his father's suicide. He obtained a false ID and lied about his age to join the U.S. Army Airborne.

After World War II ended, he was sent to occupied Japan to collect weapons from the former Japanese soldiers. Not only did he collect guns, but he was ordered to collect samurai swords.

“General MacArthur said no martial arts allowed,” Chicoine said. “That was like saying no beer during prohibition.”

Martial arts was driven underground but thrived. Chicoine was sent to the northern part of Japan which was snow covered and isolated. He was the first non-Japanese accepted into a Karate school and taught by instructor Master O-Yama.

Because Chicoine was so young, Master O-Yama called him “Baby-san.”

When Chicoine returned to Akron in 1949, he couldn't find anyone teaching martial arts. He found someone who taught him judo in exchange for lessons in karate.

“I was still young,” Chicoine said. “I had a lot to learn.”

Chinese escaping communism had traveled to Canada, and Chicoine traveled to British Columbia to continue learning.

“They assumed all martial art [followers] were troublemakers and they would have shot them,” Chicoine said. “Chinese martial arts was none-existent in this country.”

Martial arts became a business, teaching form, sport and some self-defense, he said.

Every time a martial art movie came out, people wanted to take lessons, he said. The problem was untrained instructors opened schools and charged students large sums of money and made them black belts within a year.

Chicoine said it takes 12 years to become good at martial arts. He ranked as a sixth degree black belt out of Hong Kong in 1977.

“You have to work at this,” he said. “The longer you practice, the better you get.”

Chicoine said he was also duped when he paid $600 and traveled to Taiwan to learn martial arts. When he arrived, the man wanted $600 more.

“It was a rip-off,” Chicoine said. “I wanted my money back.”

A woman reporter took him to Grandmaster Chang Tung-Sheng to get his money back. Tung-Sheng was the only 10th-degree Master in Taiwan and considered a god. He didn't teach one-on-one but agreed to teach Chicoine, the first non-Chinese to become a disciple in 1979.

“I became his 13th disciple,” Chicoine said. “Things came at me so fast. I knew his name but didn't think I'd be in his house talking to him.”

Ten years after Grandmaster Chang Tung-Sheng passed away in 1986, the Taiwan committee promoted Grandmaster Chicoine to the highest rank and only 10th-degree black belt in the world. He heads the International Shuai Chiao Association founded in 1982 by Grandmaster Chang Tung-Sheng.

“A grand master develops his own system and own style,” Chicoine said. “You have to learn a lot of stuff.”

Grandmaster Chicoine worked with Thurl R. McClanahan in the first Karate school in the Akron and later Grandmaster Chicoine had the largest martial arts school in the area.

During his 12-year career in law enforcement, Chicoine was a Portage County deputy sheriff and a Mogadore police officer. He became notable in the late 60s-early 70s for his undercover work with drug dealers for the Summit County prosecutor.

“You can't carry a weapon when you work undercover,” Chicoine said. “I portrayed myself as being one of the biggest dealers.”

He had more than 25 cases and spent most of 1971 in court.

“I never lost a case,” Chicoine said.

It also was the worst year of his life, he said. The local paper thought he was a criminal and “crucified” him even though two special grand juries couldn't find any evidence against him.

Grandmaster Chicoine has written many articles for Inside Kung-fu magazine and Black Belt magazine among others. He was inducted into the Inside Kung-fu magazine Kung-fu Hall of Fame. He was named Martial Arts Instructor of the Year in various magazines.

Chicoine says he continues to train.

“I couldn't go to sleep if I didn't work out,” he said. “I want to pass on the knowledge to others. It's refreshing for people to come to you and thank them for saving their lives.”

Chicoine knows from personal experience how important self defense is in a crisis. When he was in his 70s, Chicoine was in Florida and two men, hoping to rob him, attacked him in a hotel. The two men ended up in the hospital. In a crisis, muscle memory takes over, Chicoine said.

“You can't take away the knowledge that's been taught to you,” he added.

Reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or lfreeman@recordpub.com