It was a Saturday morning in June in 1995 when I met Sherman Harrill. I was due to fly out to a business conference in Reno the next day.
Sherman was very down to earth, he described how he and my original instructor were students in Okinawa training under Shimabuku Tatsuo. After his tour in the USMC, he returned to farm in Iowa and train, boy did he train, and saw how Shimabuku Tatsuo’s Kumite (40+ situational self defense techniques) came from kata applications. That was enough, that and the rest of his life working on understanding his system.
I had no idea what to expect and was floored when we spent the rest of the day working on applications from Isshinryu kata. He was teaching at an intense frantic pace, technique after technique. In a while it became a blur before your eyes, where to hit, how to move and when to enter the attack. The first meeting your mind numbed with the sheer number of applications.
Then when you were getting spaced out he’d do something so incredible, so always there but totally missed, new areas of surprise and direction came from them. One of those answers was a way to strike into the arm that a while later I realized was also the manner in which the tap ko’s to the neck were delivered, and hidden in plain sight… which were not no touch, but hard driving strikes you didn’t see…Then a little later against an arm grappling counter, he used a flurry of Naifanchi lower body stepping to demolish the opponents lower legs.
And more amazing as the day lengthened he’d get stronger and stronger, dive deeper and deeper into how kata can be used, till even in the locker room changing he could not stop.
The next year I helped host a clinic for Garry Gerossie to bring Sherman in, and it drew Isshinryu karate-ka from across New England. Sherman asked me what I’d like to see, and because my adult program were all long term students I requested he show applications from Chinto, Kusanku and SunNuSu kata.
Harrill Sensei spent the first several hours on just the first move from Chinto. (This became a theme for many of the following clinics I attended with him, he would spend 2 or 3 hours on a kata’s first movement before he’d move on, and you’d realize he could have spent a very profitable day on just that movement).
It wasn’t just movements against attacks, it was how to strike, when you got hit this way the following would occur, but if you get hit the other way on the same spot, you got a different response. His art wasn’t just based on fitting movements into an attack, but practicing actually striking your partner. (After clinics the next day various students would show up at my house to show the marks and discuss what that strike accomplished.). It was most definitely not non-touch karate.
Sherman was using a lot of the logical tools I had worked out, but where I was just getting into them, he had been working them hard for decades.
He wasn’t just an Isshinryu phenomena, he’d training with Uechi, Goju, Shorin stylists and show them how his applications worked with their techniques. He spent a month on summer in South Africia sharing with karate-ka there too.
Harrill Sensei’s clinics were not the Isshinryu he practiced, they were the portion of the Isshinryu he practiced that he was willing to share with non students. In fact they were more encyclopedic studies on some of Isshinryu’s kata application potential.
I was never Harrill Sensei’s student. I could not travel to Carson, Iowa, and to me being a student is more than just attending a clinic or two. Garry Gerossie was his student in my area and our meeting was from Garry’s invitation. He was a mentor, even in the small part of his art he’d share. I probably only attended about 14 clinics with him, maybe 50 or 60 hours, but they greatly inspired my own studies. Each time I ended up with dozens and dozens of new applications, and in turn drove me into further study.
Eventually he’d explain in general how much he had to hold back at open clinics, for the people weren’t his students, he didn’t really know what they could take, and a lot of the deeper explanation was not given.
Those times were almost always one way. On those rare occasions when working with him on the floor I’d go, well here is what I would do, and show 3 or 4 variations I was using, Harrill Sensei would always have another answer. One time when my students had been working on how to neutralize locks with our body mechanics studies, Sherman was showing a lock from the Isshinryu kata applications. My student, the late John Dinger looked at me and I gave a nod. When Sherman applied the lock on him, John neutralized it to his amazement. Of course that amazement froze him and Sherman just moved to another answer and John once again was on the floor.
Time was too short. On November 4th 2002 he left us. One of my students, John Dinger, had died that July and the loss of Sherman a few months later greatly affected me. I became driven and so I compiled each note, each technique, I reviewed all of the video tapes Sherman had allowed me to take and created the Sherm-Pedia.
What I discovered was he had shared 800 applications from Isshinryu’s 8 kata as well as many of the underlying principles behind his applications. He always maintained the techniques were not the key, the principles were for if you understood the principles you can always figure out the technique applications.
That is what was driving me from our meeting. While I could go to my notes and recreate clinic after clinic, there was much more value from the answers I keep finding. I do use those notes, but more for inspiration or remembrance.
I’ve trained with 5 exceptional martial artists.
Tom Lewis – Isshinryu
Charles Murray – Isshinryu
Ernest Rothrock – Chinese arts
Tristan Sutrisno – Shotokan, Siliat Tjimande, Aikido
Sherman Harrill – Isshinryu
Each of them is dedicated and awesome in different ways, experts in their arts, but as I remember Sherman Harrill, his love of Isshinryu, his never ending quest to fully understand what could be done with his karate is truly inspiring beyond his great accomplishment.
I can only speak of how Harrill Sensei affected me. After our initial meeting I joined the internet community and from time to time did some writing. Harrill Sensei was a big supporter of my efforts, he’d find sources for me from his friends for my study. I retained copies of many of our online discussions.
To fully understand his art you must study with his students, such as John Kerker who currently runs the Carson, Iowa school. You won’t find video clips of Harrill Sensei’s technique on the internet. Those who were fortunate to have copies of his studies keep them close.
I have to place this all in some context. After I created my Sherm-pedia, I sent a copy to John Kerker in Carson, Iowa, explaining why I had compiled it and wanted to give him a copy. John wrote back thanking me and told me after reviewing it, it looked about right though there were another 400 or 500 applications Sherman worked.
I have no trouble believing that at all.
More importantly the past 2 years I’ve had the occasion to meet John Kerker at several clinics held in Western Massachusetts for a few brief hours. I more fully understand how much Sherman was holding back as he had explained to me. For one thing while I thought I had seen Sherman hit hard (but with control), watching John in a private setting with people who trained with him, I have never seen anyone hit another as hard as John was doing. He explained in some detail how he was taught himself and many things started to click. Sherman would always explain, at least once in a clinic, all of these studies were well and good, but if pressed he’d just punch. After hearing John’s description of their Makiwara training, and seeing him strike, I fully realize how the true ultimate technique of karate is just that, the punch, crafted to the highest degree, and as John described, Sherman only worked one pressure point. One that started at the top of the head and extended to the bottom of the feet. A punch so powerful one strike anywhere would end the fight.