By Dale Woodard on February 14, 2021.
Wesley Orr has plenty of memories of his father, Blair Orr, in the gym.
However, the son’s memories of his father aren’t just there.
Blair Orr passed away unexpectedly on his acreage near Standoff Jan. 28 at the age of 74.
Orr was a former North American Karate Champion, a 10th Degree Black Belt in Kung Fu and the founder of The Orr Martial Arts Centre that later became The Lethbridge Martial Arts Centre.
Though Wesley looks back fondly on the athletic stamp his father put on southern Alberta, his memories go beyond the gym walls and to the outdoors his father loved so much.
“To me, he was my dad,” said Wesley. “We went to karate and did that, but my memories of him are when we had our acreage in Standoff and we had buffalo and horses. He liked to do everything himself. So we were up in the mountains cutting the fence posts and the corral posts and peeling them ourselves and then pounding them into the ground at the ranch and (putting on) barbed wire, every day after school and every weekend.”
Then there were the many horse rides into the mountains and trail riding in Waterton.
“Dad was really a family man,” said Wesley. “From the very beginning to the very end he just always wanted to hang out with the kids and make sure we were there for karate lessons or working or playing and fishing and trail riding.”
Orr passed his love of the outdoors down to his children.
“Be it camping or horse back riding or whatever, we always had to be outside,” said Orr’s daughter Christy Mulholland, recalling when her father used to put his karate studio in the Lethbridge Parade and she would be a part of the fun.
“I had my own little routine where I had to beat up my dad. That was a big hit in the parade. I was only five or six years old.”
Orr earned his first black belt in 1969 before moving to Lethbridge to open the Orr Karate School.
He organized and promoted many tournaments in southern Alberta as well as entering tournaments himself to test his skills against other schools in Canada and the U.S.
Orr won or placed in over 10 tournaments and attended seven Ed Parker’s World Competition in Long Beach, California. He switched from no-contact classes to full contact kung fu and ended his years of competing in 1975 by winning The North American Full Contact Championship in Vancouver, where he knocked out his competitor in six seconds of the first round.
He had a good battle with World Karate champion Joe Lewis and trained with the likes of Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At his centre, he trained hundreds of martial arts students over the years. Orr Martial Arts students were among the first southern Albertans to compete in the new sport of kickboxing.
“That was across from the York Hotel on 13th Street. I have memories going back from there,” said Wesley. “When he moved across from the RCMP station and built the karate studio there, dad had the weight gym on one side and the karate school on the other side. He was there for quite a few years and the basement of the place was Average Joe’s most recently.”
However, Orr’s love of the outdoors sometimes made him late for his classes.
“I think that was one of mom’s (Lorna) complaints about dad in the years of his karate station across from the RCMP,” said Wesley. “Dad would go fishing in the day, but then he had karate lessons he was supposed to be teaching at a certain time in the evening and was frequently late for that because he would be out in the mountains four-wheel driving, fishing, hiking or hunting or something like that.”
Among Orr’s students was Trevor Hardy, who first met Orr in 1989 at the local weight room in Fort Macleod, where a student of his, Eric Eremenko, who was teaching karate.
Hardy quickly learned of ‘the Blair stare’.
“I had heard about him since I was a little kid,” said Hardy. “When I met him I had never met a person quite like him. He was very strong looking and funny and energetic.
“He had a real wild-eyed look. I was a teenager and I started training with him and Eric. They took me to the Canadian Martial Arts Centre and the first time I saw Junior Olsen and what he was doing I said ‘OK, I have to do that.'”
In the mid-80s, Orr handed the karate school over to Olsen and Cal Fuller.
Olsen, who went on to compete in 35 amateur fights, recalled meeting Orr as a 13-year-old.
“He met us at the door and we just started talking about martial arts. I knew a little bit from watching boxing on TV, but I still wasn’t familiar with it. We signed up before we left,” said Olsen, who went on to become the Canadian and North American kickboxing champion.
“When I first met him, he was another person. It was just a man we met that would be the martial arts instructor. But as we got into it, that’s when we saw the martial artist himself and it was awesome.”
As a coach, Orr stressed weight training in addition to martial arts.
“He was well-built and lifted weights,” said Wesley. “That was early in dad’s career and he thought that was the way to do it. It was weight lifting and muscle training as well as mixing the martial arts. He had a whole separate section for weight lifting. You could come in and just weight lift and not do karate if you wanted or just do karate. But if you did karate you got free access to the weights if you wanted.”
“He was not just into karate,” added Mulholland. “He was very into all of us being in shape and exercising and he promoted women’s health as well. We had aerobics and women taking karate. He was all-around into health and fitness for everyone. He had women’s self defence classes, it was very well-rounded.”
Even after they took over the school in the mid-80s, Olsen said Orr would come to fights and offer his insights.
“He would tell us ‘What you do in the dark shows up under the lights.’ The will to train is always harder than the will to want to win. How many people want to train five days a week and bust their (butt)?” said Olsen. “What you put into it is what you get out of it. He would always come up with those things and I think that was even better, because it touched base on a more mental aspect. If you weren’t prepared to be in there, it showed up under the lights.”
Olsen said Orr’s martial arts career has left an impact on the community.
“But that wasn’t all. He was a huge family man. He loved the outdoors, hunting, fishing and going up into the mountains. We got to celebrate time with him.”
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