TAMPA — At the long-gone Florida School of Judo building — a cracker-box operation on South MacDill Avenue where the sights, sounds and smells could never be forgotten — Ed Maley displayed his life’s mission in the window.
Nice People And Champions Are Made Here.
“He was teaching you the sport,’’ said Dewey Mitchell, a four-time national champion and captain of the 1984 U.S. Olympic judo team. “But really, he was teaching you how to be a man.
“Respect. Discipline. Accountability. Hard work. No shortcuts. Those weren’t terms he just threw around lightly. That was his belief system and he transferred that to all of his students.’’
Mr. Maley, who died on Oct. 2 at age 87 following a decade-long battle with multiple myeloma, proudly worked out nearly every day of his life. He once bench-pressed 450 pounds — about three times his body weight — and could frighten anyone with gravel-voiced admonitions in his Brooklyn accent.
But he had a soft heart and a love for anyone who wanted to improve themselves.
For 68 years, Mr. Maley was the sensei, the martial arts term for teacher. As a ninth-degree red belt — a distinction held officially by only a few dozen people in the world — his credibility was unquestioned.
But he was the people’s sensei, even while advancing to the rank of “professor’’ and ultimately to “doctor.’’ He instructed kindergartners and grandmothers. His students became doctors, attorneys, engineers, accountants and politicians. He was given a key to the City of Tampa and saluted by three different Florida governors. The Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners proclaimed Sept. 16, 1998 as “Ed Maley Day.’’
Two weeks before his death, Mr. Maley was on a walker, but still on the mat at the YMCA.
Still teaching judo.
Still teaching life.
In 2001, Mr. Maley sold the old building, the one with an air-conditioning unit that he rarely used because he felt that stuffy sweat-shop conditions would toughen his athletes. A former student, Eric Seiler, affectionately referred to it as a “magnificent dungeon.’’
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But the Florida School of Judo moniker never went away, living on through classes held at recreation centers, church halls, public schools or any place that would have him.
Frank Costa, Mr. Maley’s best friend and fellow judo instructor, said the Florida School of Judo will become a nonprofit company, dedicating its time-honored principles to new generations.
“There’s no question that Ed took tremendous pride in the students who won championships and competed at the highest levels,’’ Costa said. “We figured he probably taught about 80,000 people over the years, so that leaves a lot who didn’t win championships. He took as much pride in teaching someone discipline.
“He took the fear out of you. He taught you how to compete. So when that person went into business or graduated college and looked for a job, they weren’t afraid. They were confident. That’s what Ed did. It was more than judo. And he did that for lots and lots of people.’’
In recent years, Costa got tangible evidence of Mr. Maley’s legacy.
“I’d take him downtown for lunch and he’d get interrupted every few seconds,’’ Costa said. "These were people — many of them with big-time jobs — who wanted to say hello. They were former students. So many of them. It had been decades in a few cases, but they never forgot Ed.’’
How could anyone forget?
Mr. Maley learned judo in high school and began teaching classes while enlisted in the Air Force. He was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base and decided to settle in Tampa, where he opened his judo school in 1963.
That’s where he encountered every walk of life. But along the way, Mr. Maley also held classes for military personnel, along with drug enforcement workers, FBI agents and law enforcement officers.
Mr. Maley once referred to judo as “the essence of all sports. It’s like a tree trunk. It’s the foundation. You learn how to move your hands and your knees. You learn balance and coordination. You learn how to fall properly. You learn good exercises and physical fitness. You should always start with judo, then branch out to the other sports.’’
Judo, which means “the gentle way,’’ has its origins in the ancient art of jujitsu, which emphasizes leverage and using the strength and weight of your opponent against them.
Despite his many honors — the Black Belt Hall of Fame, the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame, the G.I. World Hall of Fame, national championships in the AAU and Air Force, plus a seven-year undefeated run as Florida state champion — Mr. Maley kept a humble existence.
“He could’ve been bigger and the business could’ve been bigger financially,’’ Costa said. “But that wasn’t what Ed was all about. I know there were people who struggled and Ed taught them for free.
“He was a guy who got joy from teaching and watching other people improve. That was his life. That’s why it’s important to keep this thing going and not let it die. The Florida School of Judo means a lot to a whole lot of people.’’
Mr. Maley’s only child, son Keith, said he kept things purposely low-key after his father’s death. There wasn’t a newspaper obituary. A small memorial was held in Riverview. Still, about 100 people attended, including Mark Reynolds, the second line of his family’s four generations that received judo instruction from Mr. Maley.
A formal celebration of life is being planned for early 2020. That way, there’s plenty of notice for Mr. Maley’s former students and friends from around the world.
Mr. Maley was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years, Toby. He is survived by son, Keith, and daughter-in-law, Tina; grandchildren, Heather, Brandi and Steffan; and great grandchild, Avi.
“I had a great father and was very lucky to have him as long as I did,’’ Keith Maley said. “The unique thing is how many people I encounter that think of him as a second father. He was a great influence on so many lives.
“There are so many sports now, so many choices for parents and their kids. Many times, you see the parents who are obsessed with winning and getting trophies. That wasn’t my father. He wanted to develop a better person. If self-defense, some skills and maybe some championships came along with it, that was great, too.’’
Keith Maley chuckled when recalling his father’s tough-guy persona.
“If you weren’t working to his satisfaction, he might call you a ‘buttercup,’ ‘’ Mr. Maley’s son said. “If your foot was hurt? He’d say, ‘You got another one, hop around.’ If your finger was hurt, he’d say, ‘You got nine more of them.’
“I think the sheer number of people — and the quality of those people — who he taught over the years really tells the story. The old building, it wasn’t much. But some pretty great things happened behind those walls.’’
It’s where Mr. Maley created some memorable champions.
And several thousand nice people.