PAWTUCKET — You can't help but laugh when Gil Dolman explains how he came to enlist in the U.S. Navy at age 17. He does so in such a Pawtucket way.
“I joined up to get away from all the creeps, the bullies,” the 59-year-old lifetime city resident offered. “I had been living in Prospect Heights, and I was always in fights. I didn't start them, of course; there were just kids in the heights in the 1960s and '70s who wanted to beat me up. They'd do that because they wanted to take my lunch money, or because I was hanging out with a girl, whatever.
“I was a small kid, and I always had the heart to fight back, but not the ability or know-how,” he continued. “The same stuff was happening at Tolman High School. Everyone was doing drugs and partying, and – no matter what clique you were in – you were going to get involved in some type of nefarious behavior, even to the smallest degree.
“It finally got to a point where I was, like, 'Screw this, I'm outta here! I'd rather fight in the Vietnam War, fight for my country, than be with these idiot hooligans.'”
That short soliloquy, in essence, leads to the most recent – and amazing – laurel bestowed upon Dolman: On March 3, he and four others were inducted into the Karate Referees Association of New England International Hall of Fame during the KRANE Triple Crown Tournament and Awards Banquet at Warwick's Crowne Plaza Hotel.
There he received a mammoth plaque commemorating his 40th year as a competitor, instructor and referee of karate events all over the country; KRANE officials deemed it a lifetime achievement award.
“There were over 400 recipients of different awards at the event, and only five of us have ever been issued such a prestigious honor in KRANE's 41-year history,” stated Dolman, who accepted the accolade along with Michael Burton of Warwick; Don Rodrigues of Coventry; Paul Johnson of Springfield, Mass.; and Bob Cheezic of Waterbury, Conn.
“This absolutely means the world to me,” Dolman gushed. “You know, trophies are dust collectors and will be broken, the money you earn as a professional is always spent, the titles won are forgotten, but this plaque – as far as I'm concerned – is written in stone. It'll last forever.
“This is the best thing I've ever accomplished, without question,” he added. “This is something I never thought possible, and receiving (the award), one given by such a prestigious organization, is the greatest thing I've ever experienced.”
It's a classic storyline, how a frail kid opts to learn how to defend himself via the martial arts, but Dolman's delves so much deeper.
Before he graduated from Tolman in 1969, he chose to enlist due to bullies taking their own insecurities out on him.
“I remember the day I finally went to enlistment headquarters on the site of the (current) Pawtucket post office – it was May 20, 1969,” he recalled. “I walked to the corner of Montecello Road and George Bennett Highway and joined. But I had to call my mother to sign the papers, (as) I was only 17.'
Dolman claimed he was shipped out the same afternoon to the Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command in North Chicago, Ill. He went through eight weeks of basic training, returned to “The Bucket” for a week or so, then was sent to the base in Alameda County (Oakland), Calif.
That's where he became an aviation boatsmen-mate on the U.S.S. Ranger, an aircraft carrier.
“Simply put, I just flagged the planes into the carrier, which was part of the Seventh Fleet,” he said. “I did that even on open water, and it was wild.”
He achieved a rank of E-4 (or petty officer), and spent nearly two years in the service before returning to the Ocean State in January 1971.
“I came home, looked around and thought, 'Gil, you're right back where you started. Here are the same people, the same area, the same dumb stuff,'” he chuckled. “That's when I thought to myself I had to get some training.”
Dolman, then 20, located the only such school in the area, the old Eastern Karate Academy in Central Falls, so trekked to 860 Broad St. (he remembered the address with ease) and spoke with an instructor.
“I asked him what he taught (as) I wasn't sure if it was karate, judo or another (discipline),” he said. “When he told me 'self-defense,' that floated my boat, so to speak. That's just what I was looking for. I didn't realize at the time that karate would offer me so much and change my life. It taught me discipline, respect, dedication, self-confidence.
“I just fell in love with it,” he added. “I are it, drank it, slept it, dreamed it. Honestly, I was amazed how I took to it so easily. There were students there who were higher ranked than me, but they struggled with it. It came so natural to me, even I was shocked. That's when I thought I had found my niche.”
He began competing almost immediately. His instructor, Ernie St. Laurent, informed him of the Black Dragon Karate Tournament in South Attleboro, so registered. When he came back with two trophies, those snared in the White Belt Division's fighting and kata (form) categories, even St. Laurent couldn't believe it.
“He was floored,” Dolman grinned. “I had very little training. I mean, most people go into their first competition not to win but just for experience. Ernie said, 'You've got to be kidding me! One trophy is phenomenal, given your experience, but two? That's ridiculous.”
It wasn't to Dolman. In October 1974, he earned his black belt, and blew his own mind when he defeated the defending world champion, Bob Campbell, to become the new U.S. weapons (nunchuks) champion at the Prudential Center in Boston.
“I got a perfect score – all 10s,” he beamed. “That was my first national championship. When I won, I thought to myself, 'Winning is great, but beating the world champ is better.'”
Not long after, he attended the Canadian Open National Tournament in Nova Scotia, and claimed that weapons title as well.
In 1977, he traveled to Los Angeles for the Karate Olympics and gleaned a gold medal in the weapons division, not to mention a silver in fighting and a bronze in kata. Later, all the while refereeing and teaching locally to pay the bills, he captured an incredible three events at the 1989 New England Karate Open Championships in Providence.
“I finished first in kata, first in weapons and first in fighting; that had never been done before,” he stated proudly. “Usually, competitors are very efficient in one discipline, but not all three. Newspaper people came to me to ask questions, and my instructor couldn't believe all the write-ups.”
Stated his wife of four years, Sue: “The garage (also his dojo) is plastered with those articles. He even had bumper stickers with his name on them, calling him the three-time New England champion.”
Dolman chose to turn professional back in 1975, and quickly joined a new organization entitled the Professional Karate Association, that based in East Greenwich). He also became a member of the R.I. Thunderbolts squad, one that traveled nationally to face other states' top fighters.
“It was a five-man team, and we finished undefeated in at least 25 competitions,” he mentioned. “I fought in the middleweight division (169-181 pounds), and went 25-0. We got paid $250 for each fight back then, and they also paid for food, lodging, travel expenses, etc. It wasn't a lot of money back then, but it was a great experience.
“Now, they get paid $25,000 per bout. I think I was born too early!”
After 25 years as a professional, he decided to retire in January 2000, and – a month later – he opened his own studio in Riverside. He named it “Sensai-tional Fitness & Karate Center.
“I did that because a karate teacher is called a 'sensai,' and I wanted to put my own little mark on it; I thought I was being creative,” he laughed. “The reason I wanted to do that was Billy Blanks had come up with 'Tai Bo.' Tai means foot, and 'Bo” means hand. It also is short for boxing.
“It was really great cardio for men, women and children,” he continued. “It went really well, until the owner sold the building two years later. He left me high and dry, so I went back to teaching, competing and judging.”
Dolman was on top of the world at that time, or so he thought. On Aug. 6, 2007, he suffered a massive heart attack in his sleep and nearly died next to his wife.
“I remember, it was 11:33 p.m. on a Saturday. He woke up and told me he was having serious pains in his chest,” Sue Dolman recalled. “He didn't want to take an ambulance, so I'm the one who drove him to the (Veterans Administration) hospital (in Providence).
“They don't do heart surgeries at the VA, so they transported him to Boston,” she added. “The doctors told him he never should have woke up.”
Revealed Dolman: “They told me I survived because of all my training. They said I had four completely blocked valves to all four chambers; they were all 98-percent blocked, so only two percent were working. I had quadruple bypass the next day, and the doctor came out and said, 'From now on, Gil, no more training, you got me? You can teach, that's it!'
“I said, 'OK, doc,' but I didn't mean it. Deep down, I was thinking, 'Ain't gonna happen! There's no way.'”
Sue indicated that as soon as he returned home, he wanted to begin lifting weights, and she screamed at him.
“I thought he was out of his mind; I tried to take him for a walk, but that didn't go so well,” she said.
Six weeks later, he began a steady diet of lifting and fast walking. By November 2007, he entered the KRANE Triple Crown National Open Tournament at the Crowne Plaza, and – naturally – won the Over-50 Division fighting title.
Dolman, who had opened and captained two other dojos – one in Providence in 1978 and another in Rumford in 1984, spent most of the '90s as a teacher and judge, but returned to competition in 2000 so his students could learn by watching him and other experienced martial artists compete.
He doesn't compete much now, as his teaching and judging takes up a majority of his time. He did, however, sign up for the Connecticut Open National Championships in Norwich in March 2011, and placed first in the 50-and-over Black Belt Division's fighting category.
He did the same at the Western Massachusetts Open Nationals in Springfield last May, and also at the KRANE Triple Crown Summer Tournament in Warwick last July.
“Imagine that: 59 years old, going on 60 (his birthday is March 22), and still fighting,” he giggled. “I surprise even myself.”
When asked if he ever returned to Prospect Heights to catch a glimpse of an old nemesis or two, he smiled widely, then answered, “There was a couple of bullies I tracked down in Pawtucket in the mid-'70s. One was sitting on a lawn at the Heights, and I walked by. I hate to say it, but I took out all of those years of frustration, anger, and I guess you could call it embarrassment, and just beat him up. He never had a chance.
“I wasn't looking for it, I just had a flood of emotions overcome me,” he added. “It was something I just couldn't ignore.”
Nowadays, he acts as a volunteer instructor for Jim Perlini, a Black Belt who appropriately who owns the Super Kicks Black Belt Leadership Academy on Benefit Street in Pawtucket. He also continues to judge competitions area-wide.
He continues to train, he says, because it makes him feel good.
“It keeps me in shape, and I love the mental aspect, which includes the atmosphere surrounding a dojo,” he noted. “They call it the power of ki, which means the strength from within. It's also a great stress reliever. The everyday situations of life are stressful, so this keeps me on an even keel, gives me confidence.”
Naturally, so does his new plaque, one telling him he's an International Karate Hall of Famer.
“That means so much, but so does teaching,” he explained. “When I'm teaching, I can envision what these kids have been through. I can relate, but I also love seeing the end results. When a kid gets his brown or black belt, I can see how proud he is because he knows he achieved something so special.
“I also see the respect he has for himself and others. You get to mold these kids; you see them become more socially accepted. That's because their confidence has grown, their values have changed for the better, and they're just better people. I adore teaching.”