This August 28th marks the tenth year since the death of Remy Amador Presas, the founder of Modern Arnis. His death ten years ago devastated the thousands of students across the world who had come to love him.
It also left a leadership vacuum. Modern Arnis was a personality based system, with the charismatic Remy acting as the glue that held it together. In promoting his art he traveled the world nearly non-stop for over 25 years, living out of a suitcase. When he died there was an almost predictable friction between the instructors he left behind. It grew acrimonious as each struggled with their personal loss, and as each worked to realize their personal vision of the art that was left them.
From July 14th-17th Datu Tim Hartman hosted the “Modern Arnis Family Reunion Camp: A Time For Healing.” His goal was to bring together the top instructors who trained under Professor Presas so they could set aside their differences in a spirit of warm reflection and nostalgia.
Over sixty students travelled to the event from as far away as Denmark and Austria. They were treated to a huge talent pool of instructors, one of whom who had trained with Remy before he had first come to the United States.
Senkotiros Grandmaster Max M. Pallen was born in the Philippines but moved to the United States as a young man. A student of martial arts since childhood, Pallen decided to return to the islands so he could reconnect with his culture and research the Filipino martial arts. It was there that he met Remy Presas.
Pallen was struck immediately by Presas’ outgoing personality. “He welcomed me and made me feel important and at home…as if we’d been lifelong friends.” After receiving certification in Modern Arnis, Pallen returned to Oakland, California and later assisted in Remy’s immigration to the United States.
Two years after Presas’ arrival in America, another young Filipino, Rick Manglinong, started traveling from Tahoe, California to the Bay Area in order to study with the Professor. Manglinong, currently a grandmaster in Kombatan Arnis as well as a master of Tae Kwon Do, likewise credits Remy with reconnecting him with his Filipino culture.
Manglinong echoed Pallen’s comments concerning Remy’s charisma. “His easygoing nature made the training fun and serious at the same time”. In addition, Presas gave him insights into Rick’s Tae Kwon Do. Even at this early stage in his American sojourn, Remy Presas was showing martial artists from other systems how to take what they knew and expand upon it. He called this “The Art Within Your Art.”
Master Dan Anderson observed this as well. Anderson, a four time national karate champion, started training with Presas in 1980. “He helped me transition from a karate to player to a martial artist,” said Anderson. Anderson also credits Remy with being the first instructor to openly advocate “cross training” in other systems.
Veteran martial artist and San Soo grandmaster Ron Van Browning said that Remy’s open minded approach helped make his art better. Van Browning, who has studied the martial arts since he was a teenager, said that Remy’s instruction made Van Browning understand the connections between the various systems he’d studied. Like Manglinong and Pallen, he said that Remy’s personality made him easily approachable. When they first met in 1989, Van Browning and Presas stayed up until 3:00 a.m. shooting the breeze.
Master Rich Parsons started training with Presas in 1986. “His lack of pretension was refreshing,” Parsons said, noting that he felt comfortable addressing the Professor as “Remy.” In 1998 Presas encouraged Parsons to study Balintawak with Manong Ted Buot, an art he teaches to this day.
Remy’s emphasis on what he called “The Flow” was a common theme among the instructors at the Family Reunion camp. As Presas taught it, “The Flow” was a spontaneous and seamless transition from technique to technique. Parsons states that he attempts to apply the concept to his everyday life in an effort to improve his character.
Remy’s impact on character development wasn’t lost on Master Brian Zawilinski. Zawilinski started training with Remy in 1981 at the age of 14. He credits Presas as having given him as much guidance as his parents and first instructor, Sifu Lee Lowrey. Zawilinski, a Captain and investigator with the Connecticut Department of Corrections, was quick to point out that Presas cared deeply for his students. When Brian’s child was born, Presas handed him a substantial amount of money. “This is for the baby,” Presas said.
Master Chuck Gauss could also attest to Presas’s compassion and generosity. Gauss was a police officer in Taylor, Michigan when he first started training with the professor in 1990. Gauss started following Remy around the country on his seminar tour, spending $45,000 and getting deeply into debt in order to finance the trips. At one seminar Chuck received a call from his wife saying she’d wrecked her car in an accident. Remy overheard the conversation and immediately expressed concern for the safety of Chuck’s family, who thankfully escaped injury. The car, however, was “totalled.”
Later in the day Chuck put on his jacket and found a wad of cash in the pocket. Remy knew that Chuck had spent his savings on travel and had no financial resources left to him. Remy then secreted the money in the jacket when Chuck wasn’t looking. “He paid my deductible,” Gauss said.
Datu Dieter Knüttel observed that when Remy passed away, many of his American students felt as if they’d lost a father. Knüttel, a resident of Dortmund, Germany, is the head of the 1,600 member Deutscher Arnis Verband, Europe’s largest arnis organization. “His character was such that he was person who could lead you through life and show you how to grow.”
Knüttel says he envies the relationship Americans had with Remy. In spite of Presas’ busy and prolific travel schedule, he was only able to
travel to Germany once a year. Given that lack of access, the Germans were forced to provide a structure to the system and make it a “stand alone” martial art rather than taking the “Art Within Your Art” approach that Presas emphasized in the United States.
While Remy appreciated the German approach, Knüttel emphasized that the Remy’s “Art Within Your Art” concept was perfect for the American market, and helped eliminate the xenophobia rampant in U.S. martial arts schools at the time.
Seminar host Tim Hartman agrees. Hartman, who along with Knüttel was one of a handful of martial artists to receive the title “Datu” from Presas, states that Remy’s “Art Within Your Art” approach broke down numerous barriers between systems. Hartman pointed out that Remy’s passionate work ethic and rigorous seminar schedule had a huge impact in popularizing the Filipino martial arts. “Because of the Professor’s efforts, Modern Arnis is now recognized worldwide”, Hartman said.
Hartman agrees with Knüttel that for many, Remy’s loss was like losing a father. Hartman’s estranged father died when Tim was only fifteen, and when he started training with Presas not long after, the Professor became a mentor and father figure to him. He ended spending more time with the Professor than he ever did with his biological father. In time, Remy came to call Hartman “anak,” the Tagalog word for “son.” When Hartman travelled to the Philippines some years after Presas’ death, he was touched when Remy’s siblings introduced him as Remy’s “anak”…and referred to him as his adopted son.
Hartman freely acknowledges that the aftershocks of Remy’s death left him bitter. “I didn’t think about anyone else’s loss, and I was insensitive to that,” he explains, “I regret the way I handled some of the issues that arose following his death. I was too blunt and too intense in my response.” Part of the reason for putting this camp together was so Hartman could attempt to heal some of the rifts that had arisen.
Another reason for hosting the camp is that Hartman felt that the new generation of students were missing some unique training. They didn’t have access to the instructors that Remy had personally brought up through the ranks. The spirit of cross training and sharing that Remy advocated had been lost. With that in mind, he started making phone calls and sending out emails…and members of Remy’s “family” started talking again.
The event was a success. The instructors shared techniques, and told stories of the old days…some often hilarious and accompanied with perfect imitations of Remy’s rumbling accent. Young students who never had a chance to meet the Professor got a brief peek into a time machine.
For those who knew him, the camp dusted off and polished cherished memories.
Written by Punong-Guro Steve Scott.