Some Central Texas Fencing History with personal notes
As I write this, world class fencers are emerging from central Texas, many others are learning and enjoying high quality fencing as a lifetime personal sport; and many youngsters and teens are getting the developmental and education in movement benefits that lessons in fencing provide. I try here to show how the University of Texas and Austin community programs have grown from virtually zero in 80 years to today’s fine state. And to add a few bits about other aspects of the South Texas Division.
Personal notes are here because I was a player in the affairs and they may give some flavor to the historical narrative. Names of only a few of the key players are here because they who happened to be ones I worked with most closely. I am eighty-seven as I write this
Shortly after WWII an athletic trainer came to work with the UT Austin football team. He was of European birth and early life and was a fencer. He created a small instructional club at UT so he could continue to enjoy the sport.
One of his students was Ed Barlow. Upon graduation Barlow became a full time instructor in the Required PE Program for UT students and got enough funding to add officially one small foil class. In those days all students had to take PE classes in their freshman and sophomore years. Barlow soon became Director of the program (mid 1950’s) and thus the funding of fencing classes was ensured for the years of his tenure.
About 1962, when I was thirty, I changed careers and became a graduate student in The College of Education. My TA Scholarship carried with it the duty of teaching basic gymnastics. From age nine my sport activity was tumbling and hand balancing under the instruction of a retired circus performer. It morphed, when I was about sixteen, into the newly emerging sport of competitive gymnastics in the USA. By the age twenty-one I was competing at the national level, such as it was in those days. When I graduated and entered the work force I abandoned personal sport for nine or so years.
While teaching gymnastics at UT I began attending all of Barlow’s beginning foil fencing classes because it was no longer physically feasible for me personally to practice gymnastics, and I chose to make fencing my go-to sport. A year or two later I took over teaching five of the six the fencing classes. The classes were beginning foil. I had to repair all the equipment myself to keep classes going with our small funding.
George Nelson, when he was maybe eighteen, became my student when he entered UT. George lived in my neighborhood. I was already close friends with his father. George reported one day that he had discovered that several fencers were starting regular meetings at the Austin Rec Center. Right away I joined the group and was initiated to high quality fencing by losing repeatedly to Leon Noren.
Mozelle Hampton of the group heard that there was a Maître d’Arms, coach for pentathletes, in San Antonio who also was teaching evenings to community fencers.
I arranged with Gerard Poujardieu to travel to Austin on Thursday evenings to give us individual lessons. A few adult beginners joined; so we had what could be called the first Austin community fencing club. I secretly carried equipment and half-jackets back and forth from UT each session to outfit curious new comers.
At UT my students formed the fencing club in the Recreational Sports Division. I was faculty sponsor and coach. Eventually increased interest among my beginners enabled me to create an intermediate and an advanced class, and the club, with me along as faculty sponsor, began traveling to fence small clubs at other universities such as SMU and Rice. Many funny stories about those days.
I began traveling on most Saturdays to fence at the open sessions at the Pentathlon salle in San Antonio and to take more special private lessons from Pouj. This was, of course, the father of the more recent Pouj. We aimed my lessons to be highly theoretical and less physically developmental with the goal of bringing me quickly to be a competent teacher at the beginning level in all weapons. Teaching has been my guiding passion. I love working with people, youngsters especially, to develop skill, whether it is math, physical skills, whatever.
In the south Texas fencing world, besides competing and organizational efforts, I served as a Penthalon epee judge and occasionally performed other official duties at Pentathlon fencing events. When the World Games were in San Antonio I was Chief of Discipline for the fencing event.
I worked with a few advanced fencers at the plastron from time to time, but my heart always has been with beginners. I did give a weekly lesson at the plastron to Paul Pesthy for a year when he was at UT working on an advanced degree. That was quite an experience. It deserves its own story. It gave me some sense of the art of coaching individuals at very high levels. Paul was truly world class in the modern sense.
Even as my academic career grew and I became an Associate Professor I continued to teach at least one fencing class. The day I retired at age 70 I was saying goodbye to a fencing class.
As my acquaintance with Pouj and the San Antonio fencers grew I met two whose names now escape me. One woman and one man. Alas, two very important persons in the history of our sport and now I’ve lost their names.
Together we gathered the requirements, applied, and the South Texas Division became part of the Amateur Fencers League of America. Yes, I was a founding member of what is now our South Texas Division, USFA. Again, I can’t recall exact dates.
Our division began holding small tournaments in Austin and San Antonio with a few members occasionally competing in North Texas tournaments and farther afield. I competed with fair success in all weapons in local events but blamed my age for not doing so hot against national class fencers. Ha Ha. Truth is, during my tenure in the sport in our part of the the USA it changed from energetic but mostly rather static positions and elegant maneuvers to the highly athletic and mobile sport we know today. I competed for about ten years.
Towards the end of my UT teaching career, Vincent Bradford came and took over the fencing at UT. Under her guidance the classes and club produce some very fine competitive fencers and pleased boatloads of general students. Once again I blame age for losing every epee match when Vincent and l demonstrated before our fencing classes at UT.
Vinnie formed the Texas Fencing Academy, the first highly successful and truly community fencing program in Austin, teaching beginners and coaching at all levels.
My original small Austin group quietly dissolved when I got married and adopted two small children and thus needed to pursue home life and my professional academic career more seriously.
When Vinnie moved to San Antonio in furtherance of her professional career, Ray Parker, former student of hers and Austin businessman, continued with strong passion and effort to carry forward the highly successful TFA, which continues today.
In early 1990s’ Austin got its first resident Maître d’Arms, Eric Mallet. With his dedication and efforts the Austin Fencer’s Club is now a full force community organization with fencers at the top levels and competing everywhere and many students in popular classes at other levels. When Eric first came to town he visited my advance fencing class at UT and we presented them a demo bout. Again, I give age as the excuse for not winning.
I continued throughout to teach one or two beginning class at UT while two energetic and competent general PE degree teachers with good fencing backgrounds came from outside Texas to carry the main load and club and to be my friends: Randi Shoham and Gary Whaley. The program expanded to include saber but we never taught epee. Funds were never available for electrical scoring equipment.
My funniest moment in competitive fencing was in a major epee tournament when my opponent, Don(?) Towery, from North Tx Div and I were tied at 4-4 in the quarter finals. Towery suddenly yelled and rushed at me with wild-man saber head attack, leaving himself wide open, of course, to a safe and easy epee touch. I was so completely surprised that the saber teacher in me took over and I reflexively responded with a nice saber head parry; I was a goner when he delivered the finale with his epee after his bizarre saber feint.
The academic fencing classes had a fine stroke of luck when Waneen Spirduso was selected to be Chair of the new Department of Kinesiology at UT (late 1970’s?). Under Waneen’s Chair the funding of the academic fencing classes found continuance throughout her tenure.
Waneen was originally introduced to fencing years before as an undergrad in the Women’s PE department at UT. Their manner of teaching fencing can be described perhaps as performing stylistic maneuvers in a modestly combative manner. The teachers were not interested in club fencing.
Waneen was very athletically fit, smart and determined so when she went to her first teaching job at North Texas State University she became involved and competent in combative fencing. It was already at a high level in the North Texas Division. I think she mostly taught herself. She authored a nationally published book on fencing aimed at providing the general PE teacher with basic theory for introducing fencing into school classes and as a study manual for interested beginners.
In May 2000, age 70, I retired and abruptly left the University fencing scene. Increasing mobility issues prohibited me from joining a club as a teacher. A new and enthusiastic teacher came to the Department the following September to infuse good life into the academic fencing program and club. The rest of the story of fencing at UT is in his competent hands. Again, I must blame age for forgetting his name, but no harm: that is so recent that everyone now certainly knows him.
I loved fencing and in another world I would have worked hard to become a world champion in all three weapons and a certified Maître d’Armes to boot. But in the world as it was, I liked all the students and people I met, fenced and worked with, and a few, such as Vincent and George, became loved lifetime friends. Given the choice I would not give up the world of fencing as it has been for me in exchange for any other world you can imagine.
Darrell Williams, Associate Professor Retired, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 2019