Contributed by Paul Rest
Centerfield Aikido, located in the apple and wine growing area of Western Sonoma County, one hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, closed its doors after twenty years on November 15h of this year (2006). The dojo was founded in 1986 by Sensei Mary McLean, 3rd dan and Sylvia Marie, 1st dan. Mary taught classes while Sylvia took care of every thing else that went into establishing a new dojo. A group of students soon gathered around these two teachers, who then found a permanent home in a large space, a turn of the century building that was part of an old apple processing facility. The dojo was a dynamic addition to the community of artists who had studios in the adjacent two floors. Centerfield's name was taken from an exuberant rock n'roll song of the era, but soon evolved the double meaning, reminding students to come from the center of the field of energy when they train.
After a core base of students had developed in the first five years, it was time to expand. Mary and Sylvia invited David Keip, 3rd dan and Sensei Betsy Hill, 4th dan, one of the west coast's first women black belts in the art, to join the school. Denise Berry, 4th dan taught at Centerfield for a short time, establishing its first kids' program. These senseis rounded out a unique teaching collective where they shared teaching responsibilities and decision-making based on consensus rather than rank.
Sonoma County had not been without an Aikido presence until then. Saito Sensei had visited Sonoma County some years before where he taught a class heavily laden with yudansha in an old Quonset hut outside of nearby Sebastopol. He was brought to the county by a group of his students who had an active dojo in nearby Rohnert Park. And Sensei Richard Strozzi-Heckler had started his own dojo, Two Rock Aikido, at his ranch a few miles west of Petaluma, CA.
Early videos in Centerfield's library showed the dojo with two groupings of blue mats laid out on the cement floor. A third set of mats would be added later. And all who trained there remember the two seismic support pillars in the mat area. It is a testament to the alert and flexible Aikido practiced that no one in the history of the dojo was ever injured running into these two obstacles. The early years included training without the benefit of heat with temperatures sometimes below freezing during the winter months, something I'm sure our Founder O Sensei would have loved! Eventually the thin blue mats on the cement floor were replaced with new mats a much more giving plywood foundation, a change all who trained there appreciated greatly.
The first dan test given at Centerfield Aikido was Sylvia Marie's, shortly after the dojo had moved to its new location. The test was given with Robert Nadeau, Shihan, as examiner and Sensei Mary McLean as uke. One of the highlights of the test was when Nadeau Sensei stopped the test to demonstrate a technique he wanted to see, and proceeded to launch Sensei McLean over half way across the mat some 15 feet, with an absolutely effortless throw. In the years that followed, hundreds and hundreds of people would pass through the red brick doorway to train. Some would come for one or two classes and then leave---an experience not unfamiliar to most dojos. Some stayed longer and took one or more kyu tests but found other facets of their lives demanded precious time away from the art. But many stayed on to transform their lives and build an Aikido community remarkable for its atmosphere of acceptance, playfulness and spiritual awareness. By the time this writer started training at Centerfield Aikido in 1993, there were over 75 regular students.
About the same time, the sleepy town of Graton began to awaken, first with a world class bakery and then with two gourmet eating establishments, a wine tasting room and antique emporium. It was not unusual for those visiting the town on warms days to walk into the dojo and watch through the open front door. It was the dojo's policy to always welcome these visitors, some of who eventually moved to the area and began training.
The dojo experienced many changes over the years: Sensei Marie left Centerfield in the mid 1990's to pursue her energy healing practice. And Sensei Barry left in 1994 to start a new dojo. The core teaching faculty became Senseis McLean, Hill and Keip. The dojo adjusted to these changes, and with Sensei Jack Wada as examiner, it held its first dan examination with a student who came up from its own ranks. Bob Casanta passed his shodan test with flying colors to the joy of everyone present. Other dan tests followed as others began the intense period of training that preceding their own shodan examinations.
Aikido in Sonoma County also grew during these years. At one point in the mid 1990's, there were at least ten active Aikido dojos in the county, including two in Sebastopol, four in Santa Rosa, one in Windsor, one in Rohnert Park and two in Petaluma. Smaller dojos appeared in Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park as part of city, county or school programs. The Sonoma County Aikido community also benefited from students moving to Sonoma County from the San Francisco Bay Area, for what was then less expensive housing and a more relaxed lifestyle.
In July of this year, Sensei Hill announced that she was leaving to start her own dojo, Tenchi Aikido, located on her ranch outside Sebastopol. Senseis Keip and McLean began discussions about Centerfield Aikido sharing space with a dojo David Keip recently founded in Santa Rosa his wife, Michelle Keip, 2nd dan, called Wellspring Aikido. These negotiations became a mute point when Centerfield's landlord announced that he was exercising his option on the dojo's month to month arrangement and terminated the dojo's lease. The two month process of closing the dojo was highlighted by a Saturday daylong workshop with Sensei Tom Gambell. The names and spirits of all those who had trained or come in contact with the dojo were brought onto the mat under Sensei Gambell's guidance. It was noted during the gathering that Centerfield Aikido had fostered two sandans, six nidans, fifteen shodans and four new dojos-- all parented from the supportive teaching environment that Centerfield Aikido had established over the years. Also included in the circle that afternoon were memories and experiences from the many workshops given over the years at the dojo by Senseis such as: Terry Dobson, Mary Heiny, Robert Nadeau, Frank Doran, Jack Wada, Wendy Palmer, Danielle Smith and Linda Holiday.
An anonymous posting appeared on the outside bulletin board at the beginning of November, the beginning of the dojo's final weeks. The words from Shakespeare's play, "The Tempest" spoke to the hearts of the many who had trained at Centerfield Aikido:
Our revels now are ended.
These our actors, as I have foretold you,
were all spirits and are melted into air,
into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on,
and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
Paul Rest, nidan, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His home dojo is Two Rock Aikido.