The Death of Danny Stewart

by Stephen LaBounty (2007-09-25)

There were very few major tournaments in 1966 so it was common to go to as many as possible to sharpen your fighting skills. The California State Championships was held in San Francisco's Civic Auditorium and everyone made it a "must attend" to get ready for the International Karate Championships held in August. The host of the event was Professor Ralph Castro who was in partnership with SGM Ed Parker, and they made it a very professional event drawing all the top names on the West Coast and occasionally from as far away as the Eastern seaboard, Mexico and Canada.

Danny Stewart was a young college student who studied Kenpo Karate and had attained a Brown Belt. He was one of the "fighters on the rise" and many teachers, including me, always cautioned our students to offset his speed with angled attacks or he would be in and gone before you knew it. In addition to his skill and loyalty to the system, he was a handsome, affable young man with a huge smile and tons of respect for his seniors and fellow competitors.

I was warming up to compete in the heavyweight Black Belt division which had just had it's first call.

I heard a commotion at one of the Brown Belt rings, but saw the person rise up and take a stance ready to resume his contest. I paid little attention to the incident, these were the days of no padding and catching a kick or punch in the belly(or in the head too for that matter) was not uncommon.

The next day I returned to Fresno, where my school was and received a call from Harvey Clary telling me that Danny Stewart had died. I called Tom Kelly, who was my assistant at the time and told him to come to the school right away, giving him the news and said that we were going to find out what had happened. The shock of this news was surrealistic and unbelievable to us, and later we found out that the whole martial arts community had been saddened by Danny's passing.

I attempted to call Mr. Parker, with no luck and didn't want to call Mr. Castro figuring his plate was full with all the details. I received a call from a Kenpo Instructor named Ray Klinginberg ( I think) who related this story.

Danny had been sick several days prior to the tournament. But, as I said before you needed to compete in this prestigious event to get ready for the Internationals. What no one knew was that Danny was suffering from a disease that affects the liver, spleen, lymph nodes, causing a weakened immune system and swollen organs. Danny was in the middle stages of this disease, mononucleosis, and had been running a fever for several days prior to the tournament. He was a strapping man of 18 years about 5'10", 175#, if memory serves. I found out that he had taken a kick, unknown what kind, to the midsection and went down rather quickly. He caught his breath and stood up and wanted to continue the match. Afterwards, he began to feel nauseous and weak and about 10:00 p.m. that evening collapsed. He was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured spleen and there subsequently died at two minutes after midnight.

I am writing of this incident because it has been on my mind for sometime. Though 35+ years have passed I can't help thinking of the parents who were so supportive of Danny's martial art, then lost their son in the beginnings of his life. Recently, at a Karate tournament in Reno Nevada, I had the occasion to see Professor Ralph Castro. I asked him about the year of this event so I could put something down. Still, he is saddened by the thoughts of Danny's death. I have always had such a sympathy for Professor Castro and how he had to meet with the parents, as the tournament promoter, and more importantly, as a Father himself. Mr. Parker wouldn't speak much of it, at least not to me. When it was brought up, his demeanor changed and he would only speak in short, sad sentences. We had lost a young warrior way to early in his and our lives.

Once in while, when I bring this subject up, someone always asks about Danny's opponent. Maybe someone told me who he was, but I don't remember, just as well I had heard he fell apart when he got the news. His agony continues I'm sure, so he is better left to a silent history and memories he never wanted.

Recently, in the last 3 or 4 months and even a couple of weeks ago, I was asking "old timers" about this event. Tom Kelly, John Sepulveda and others would just answer in hushed tones. The effect that is still with us...

Danny would be a Senior Belt now, I'm sure of it. How many champions he would've trained we'll never know. Butæhis death made us grow up and come to the realization that we are in a 'martial' art and that we must expect and be ready for anything, even dying...