ST. PETE BEACH — By the time Vincent DeMarco found his calling as a karate instructor, he had already found success.
An engineer, he lived in the suburbs of East Rockaway, N.Y. He was vice president of a successful company. Then he took a karate course, and his life changed.
Over the next 40 years, Mr. DeMarco would emerge as a 10th-degree blackbelt — the highest rank attainable — in the karate style his teacher adapted from the Japanese. Mr. DeMarco eventually took his teachings to Italy, where several karate schools looked to him as their grandmaster.
Mr. DeMarco died Thursday after an illness of several weeks. He was 84.
"Whenever you made the attack he just wasn't there," said former student Ken Nilsen, 56, a seventh-degree blackbelt who is now training Marines in Arizona. "He would take evasive action, and before you realized where he was you were in extreme pain, usually on your way to the floor."
Mr. DeMarco had his epiphany at age 36, by which time he had already been a New York City firefighter before an injury ended that career. He settled on an engineering job with a company that made parts for Grumman Aerospace Corporation in the age of NASA's first rocket launches.
His wife's pregnancy inspired him to be fitter, so he went to a karate school, or dojo. The lessons took, and he quickly became addicted.
"It turned into a passion," said Mary Lou Keating, 58. Mr. DeMarco's daughter. "Here was a man who used to come home, sit down and have a Manhattan before dinner. Now he would come home, eat his dinner, change clothes and go to the dojo."
Mr. DeMarco was learning USA GoJu, an American adaptation of a Japanese karate style. The original GoJu founder, Chojun Miyagi, developed the style in Okinawa in the 19th century. He explained the method as a blend of attacking and defending, hardness and softness.
Though Mr. DeMarco had become vice president of his engineering company, nothing could compare with studying and teaching karate. He quit his job and opened a school in Long Island.
His children watched him stretching in the garage and kicking a heavy bag. Sometimes young Mary Lou held up boards for him to punch through.
"That was the crowd pleaser," said Mary Lou Keating, who went on to earn a black belt herself.
Mr. DeMarco never looked back, despite tragedies in his life — his first wife died in childbirth; a son, Vinnie, died at age 38, of diabetes.
His death leaves just a couple of 10th-degree blackbelts in the discipline.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.