Dave Catapano was an average student, who when at his weakest, taught us all the true spirit of internal strength and the true meaning of warrior spirit.
I started as his master and upon his death became his student, because in the end, he taught me as much about the important things in life and death as I taught him about Kung Fu.
Dave's ashes now lie inside the walls of Modern Warrior and his message lies within the heart and soul of Bo Fung Do.
His courage was the type of courage that humbles even the strongest warriors, because it transcends the life he lived, the death he bravely faced with dignity and honor and lights the way for all who will follow a true warrior's path into eternity.
Warrior AttitudeHow one role model left his mark on Modern Warrior® forever.
By Phil Messina
I have a story to tell about attitude. It's not a cop story, but it is a true story. In 1987, when Modern Warrior was just a tiny storefront, a new student started classes after completing our three step screening process. There was nothing special about Dave Catapano. He was older than most students starting out in martial arts, not in very good shape and had a knack for telling the world's worst jokes and laughing so hard that before you knew it everyone else was laughing also. There was nothing spectacular about his career either. Dave was an electrician and from what I could tell, he was a damn good one.
As a matter of fact, Dave designed many of the training devices we use to create "reality based training" and if it weren't for his input, we wouldn't have created the world's first Environmental Simulator Room for law enforcement training.
There was something very special about Dave and no one could at first put their finger on it. He didn't do anything particularly well, but always managed to work harder than anyone else in the room and get the job done. At first I chalked it off to "work ethic", but deep down inside I knew that it was even more than that.
In 1989 I was invited by the Chinese Government to take part in a training exchange at the Shaolin Temple Wu Shu Training Center in Hunan Province, Mainland China. I decided to take fifteen students with me and Dave was one of those selected.
During "forms" demonstrations, Dave looked awkward and often confused, but when it came to sparring he always managed to do whatever it took to come out on top. It was during that trip that Dave started to notice a small pain in the back of his left calf, although by the time we got back the pain was gone.
That summer at our annual Kung Fu Weekend, Dave noticed a lump where the pain had been. After going for numerous tests Dave was informed that he had a rare type of cancer that only about 400 people worldwide get each year. Soon afterwards his left leg was amputated just below the hip and despite this surgery Dave was told he had about six months to live. Two months later Dave was back at classes and a year after that he earned his red belt, our second highest belt. The funny thing was that since losing his leg, Dave actually became a better martial artist and the people that used to give him hell in sparring now usually found themselves on the losing end of those matches. Dave employed a strategy that allowed his prosthetic leg to become an asset rather than a liability and learned to roll so fast and unexpectedly that his entire body became a weapon. His colleagues at the school often said that sparring Dave was like fighting a buzz saw.
I remember one day when two young electricians were putting up our giant wind fan and Dave was giving them advice from below, because his prosthetic was being repaired and he couldn't climb the ladder. At one point one of the young men shouted down "listen old man; just keep quiet and let us do our job, or come up here and do it yourself. Dave just smiled and yelled back " I would, but with my luck I'd fall head first, crack my head open, lose 95% of my brain matter and still know more about electrical work than you'll ever learn".
Then in 1994, Dave's cancer spread to his lung and that also had to be removed. I spent many hours in the hospital with Dave after his surgery and although he swore he would be back to train, I had serious doubts. Three months later Dave was back and working harder than ever. He was not only taking classes and sparring again but teaching as well.
Sometimes after chemo treatments Dave would have to take breaks between sparring sessions so he could go vomit. Then he would come back and spar another session. Even the black belts were in awe of his courage and determination. And all of us knew who the real role model of Modern Warrior was; even if the general public didn't.
Finally in 1995 Dave moved to Florida with his wife and new daughter, so he could get them closer to his wife's family and get experimental treatments that weren't available in New York. But Dave didn't stop teaching. In August of 1996 Dave taught "The Cane as a self defense tool" at the AWSDA (American Women's Self Defense Association) Conference in Orlando.
A month before the conference I got word that Dave was "deathly ill", so I called him and told him he didn't have to teach at the conference and that I would arrange another instructor to take his place. He told me that he didn't plan on dying prior to that date, so teaching wouldn't be a problem. Besides he said, "I gave my word and I intend to keep it". Here was my student throwing my own lessons back in my face; and it was probably the proudest moment of my life.
So in August of 1996 there was Dave teaching again with his wife co- instructing and sometimes literally holding him up as he demonstrated techniques at two training blocks. At the closing banquet I was honored to present him with AWSDA's "Lion Heart Award" and had a difficult time finishing my presentation.
At the end of the ceremony Dave asked me if I would take a traditional wing chun photo, with me sitting in a chair and Dave standing beside me. This is a symbolic gesture which is supposed to show the student's respect for his master. I agreed only if we could also take one with me standing beside a sitting Dave. I don't think there was a dry eye in the house as the photos were taken. Later that night Dave told me he couldn't make a commitment to teach the following year.
A few months ago, Dave called me and invited me and Liz to come spend a few days with him. We spent three days together and it was quality time I will always cherish. Even during those days Dave was telling bad jokes and then laughing until we all laughed and somewhere along the line he started talking about the mass suicide committed by the Hale/Bopp Comet people and was wondering why they bothered to pack suitcases.
I reminded him that people have been packing suitcases for death since long before the Egyptians and that I believed it was a symbolic gesture to let one's God (or Gods) know what you would be needing during your trip into eternity. Well Dave said, "I guess I'll only need a toothbrush then, because it seems the Medical Community has gotten just about everything else, and besides, I like to travel light."
Between (bad) jokes Dave also commented that although he was afraid of dying, he was also very curious about what the actual experience of the moment of death would be like. He said he had been reading a lot books on the subject and couldn't help but wonder if any of them were even remotely accurate. Then with a typical Dave smile he said "I sure hope I don't sleep through it". At the time, I didn't realize the significance of this remark. On the day we left Dave was told that there was no more the medical community could do and they would hook him up to a morphine machine until his death.
Last month, I went to Dave's funeral, where myself, one of my black belts and one of my students performed a ceremony which posthumously promoted Dave to Black Belt. He had requested that he be buried in his Kung Fu uniform. During the wake I spoke to Dave's wife, his brother-in-law, and a hospice nurse; all of whom had been there with Dave until the very end. They told me a story which I have passed on to all my students and now pass on to you.
A few days before Dave's death, he was told by his hospice care nurse that he would soon fall asleep and die in his sleep and that the death would not be painful. Upon hearing this Dave stated " you mean when I fall asleep, I won't wake up?" The nurse nodded and Dave said "then I guess I won't go to sleep". Dave stayed up for four straight days despite all the morphine and medication. Finally the hospice nurse called Eileen into the room and said to Dave "It's okay to let go. Your wife and child will be fine. There are a lot of people looking out for them." Dave looked at Eileen and she nodded to him at which time Dave looked into the upper corner of the room and shouted "Wait a minute, I just need my toothbrush and my shoes", and then he died; with his eyes open.
Of course Dave took more than just his toothbrush and his shoes, he took the love and respect of all who knew him with him. And he took the one thing I could never put my finger on. The thing that made him not only a great martial artist, but a great warrior as well. He took his ATTITUDE. An attitude he carried with courage and dignity throughout his life, to the moment of his death and into eternity.
Editor’s note: At Dave’s wake, Phil Messina and Lou Boragine performed the traditional Modern Warrior Black Belt Ceremony, giving Dave his Master’s belt. On July 20, 1997 a Warrior's Memorial Service for David Catapano was held at Modern Warrior to honor this true role model. At that time Dave's fellow warriors placed their Kung Fu Sashes beneath two crossed swords at the foot of Dave's photo and a memorial plaque which hangs on the wall of the school Dave helped to build. Many of his fellow students also took part in memorializing Dave by contributing to the Renga which was written for him. A Renga is community poem written in separate verses by separate students, without knowledge of each other's verses. This was read at the ceremony.
Welcome to Modern Warrior® for the Memorial Ceremony to honor Dave Catapano
Following you will find:
- Memorial Ceremony Procedure.
- Phil Messina’s opening statement.
- The Renga, a traditional Japanese type of poetry, compiled by various Modern Warrior® students.
- Phil Messina’s closing statement.
- An article about who Dave was and how he impacted MW.
Opening StatementWe gather here not to say goodbye to a fallen Warrior, but rather to symbolize a joining of his spirit, which has found eternity, and ours which is still on the journey.
Dave gave a lot to Modern Warrior®. And I hope Modern Warrior® gave a lot back to Dave.
I’m not going to say that Dave was always an easy student to teach. He wasn’t. I’m not going to say that teaching Dave wasn’t a challenge. It was. I will only say that I am a better teacher, Modern Warrior® is a better school, and Bo Fung Do is a better art because Dave was here. For not only does a part of Dave’s body lie within these walls, but a part of his soul lies within these walls also.
I will miss Dave.
I will miss his dedication.
I will miss his defiance.
I will even miss his bad jokes.
But most of all I will miss his friendship.
The students will now lie the symbol of their Warrior’s quest at the foot of Dave’s memorial.
Memorial CeremonyThe ceremony will begin with all students except black belts on the west side of the north gym in rank order.
Family or guests will be on the east side.
Black belts will take turns holding swords in front of covered plaque. (stand on left side of plaque.)
Phil will make opening statement.
White belts will (one at a time) place their sashes in an X pattern in front of the plaque, then bow to the plaque. Those who wish to make memorial statements will step under the swords before placing their sash, make their statement. Then untie sash, place it and bow returning to the west side of gym (behind the other students.)
Yellow, green, blue and red belts will then follow suit.
Black belts will be the last to place their sashes.
Phil will then place his sash horizontally through the X.
Liz will read the Renga and a short story about Dave’s life.
Swords will be lifted off sashes and held aloft.
Phil will make a short statement, lift his sash from the pile and touch it to the plaque, then put it on.
The students will then in reverse order (black to white) reclaim their sash; tie it around their waist; bow to Dave’s plaque and return to their place.
The ceremony will be over.
Closing StatementA true Warrior doesn’t seek war, nor does he wish to do battle. He merely believes that it is honorable to cling to a worthy cause. It is noble to reach out to those who are weaker than yourself. And it is valiant to believe that many things are worth giving up everything for.
Today you have witnessed how true Warriors can show respect. Now carry that respect into the world around you. A world in great need of true Warriors.
It is said that one day even the balance of the Universe will be challenged. That on that day the souls of all true warriors will gather at the gates of hell and fight one final, glorious battle with the forces of evil. I don’t know if this is true, but there are two things I do know. That if that day comes we will be victorious. And Dave will be there with us.
|The midday sun beckons
over the freshly clothed trees
A soul soars
|He inspired admiration when others would have sought sympathy
He laughed when others would have cried
He lived when others would have died
|Muscle pumps pain
Another vow to see one again
|When I am troubled I think of Dave
and my troubles are illuminated with insignificance
|Indomitable spirit soars
Eagle graces the sky
|As blackened forest demands courage
And so searching begins by
Tapping into a shared defiance
|The untaught lesson passed
New wings for new challenge
|The source eternally abundant
As grains of sand covering the desert floor
|The spirit pushed on and on
Through the mental barriers of painful compromise
Onward to the top of the mountain
|A voice came whispering in the night
But rest easy, the warrior is not forgotten
Brave spirit living still
|Seeing the black hole of light
The eagle soared into the reward: unknown
|Strength, courage, love
Lessons taught to friends as well as strangers
|While a warrior may never leave
Some never have met
A spirit stays round for all to get
|I was saddened when I heard about Dave
I was surprised when I met him
I was impressed when I trained with him
|A warrior’s spirit is his power
Thank you Dave for every hour
|Man of steel we joked
We were honored to have known him
|When the golden day is done
The darkness of night descends
giving rise to a courageous warrior’s soul
|Laughing thunder rolls
over hills and mountains
in daylight and through the night
|And by its very presence benefits all mankind
Rejoice and behold this true warrior spirit
|Above a star shines
With the beauty of the past
|Mighty warrior, strong, defiant
Like a spring flower reaching upward
Finally falls to lonely winter’s grasp
|A warrior faces the enemy
The flesh yields
The spirit survives
|Relentless is the circle
Spirit soars and is with us still
Walking bravely into the light
|Warrior spirit unyielding
Mental attitude unchangeable
|Reed blows in the wind
Standing firm yet with such grace
A humble bow to both earth and sky
|Faced death on
His own terms
|You go before us
You live within us
|A warrior, you fought pain and disappointment
A man, you brought a smile to our faces
These things you were
|Everything familiar and comforting
memories of simple pleasures
Breathless spontaneous laughter
|What you are
is an inspiration
|Quick good humor, a loving heart, smiling eyes
True warrior facing the ultimate adventure