When it comes to martial arts, it wasn’t love at first sight for Harold Guerin.
In 1964, he was a Plaquemine teenager whose asthma kept him from enjoying outdoor sports like football. When he saw an ad for a karate school opening in Baton Rouge, he got his dad to take him to the introductory class. His dad paid the fee and signed him up.
That was the last they saw of the school’s owner.
“And he took off with all the money and left everybody hanging,” Guerin said. “He was a con man.”
A law student who had some martial arts training agreed to teach the class. Eventually, Guerin would start teaching himself. A half century later, he is still involved.
Guerin, 67, was named to the Martial Arts Hall of Fame in 2008, and he was recognized for 50 years in martial arts on June 21 at the World Head of Family Sokeship Council in Orlando, Florida. The council bills itself as the world’s foremost group of martial arts masters and grandmasters.
Having thought he would learn karate, which involves more kicks and punches, Guerin wasn’t thrilled when the replacement instructor, Al Abramson, taught judo and jiu-jitsu, which involve more grappling and throwing skills.
“I was a skinny little kid with asthma,” he said. “I’d come home and say, ‘I think I broke a rib.’ My daddy, after a few lessons said, ‘Look, either shut up your whining or quit.’ So I quit for a couple of weeks.”
But he got right back in, and kept it up. Within three months of starting, he began teaching others self-defense.
“I didn’t know but a few jiu-jitsu techniques, but I had about eight or 10 girls sign up — teenagers like me,” he said. “Two of them actually used it on the street, the little bit I used to teach them, in defending themselves. I wanted to help people on the street.”
Guerin now has black belts in seven martial arts. He has always taught martial arts in his spare time, having earned his living as a policeman, carpenter’s apprentice, refinery operator and as a corporate security specialist before retiring eight years ago.
Although Guerin has taught students who wanted to compete in tournaments, he has always focused on teaching people how to defend themselves effectively. Different styles of martial arts come in and out of fashion. When it comes to self-defense, Guerin believes that simpler is better.
“If you get good at a few moves against a knife or a stick attack, you’ve got a better chance,” he said.
The reason, he said, is that the adrenaline produced in a life-or-death situation eliminates fine and intermediate motor skills for those who have not trained to handle those events. Techniques that are impressive in martial arts demonstrations or movies are little good against a real attacker.
“If your techniques involve anything other than up and down, closed to open and open to closed, it won’t work,” Guerin said. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”
Having seen martial artists from all over the world, Guerin is impressed with those from the Philippines, especially those trained in stick combat.
“It’s comical the skill that they have,” he said. “They have a saying in the Philippines if you’re fighting with a stick or knife: ‘That’s not your knife. That’s mine. I just haven’t taken it from you, yet.”
Guerin doesn’t teach as frequently as he once did, but has built a room behind his Plaquemine home where he still trains those who ask. A committed Christian, he ends lessons with a five-minute Bible teaching for anyone who wants to stay.
“I don’t force nothing on them,” he said. “The truth doesn’t force somebody to follow it. It only forces you to make a decision for it or against it.”