Pathfinder: Vietnam, martial arts shaped Kirby’s remarkable journey


By Dave Ongie, News Editor

Johnson City’s Dale Kirby with the Bronze Star he was awarded for valor while serving in Vietnam. Photos by Dave Ongie

There is a Chinese word that is familiar to both martial artists and anyone who has studied world religions, and that word is Dao.

In its simplest, most literal form, Dao means a way or a path. Figuratively, the word is used to talk about an ethical or a moral way or path, one a person takes during his or her spiritual journey through life.

Dale Kirby took some time recently to consider both meanings of the word inside his new home at Everlan in Johnson City. Now 73, Kirby has blazed a remarkable trail through the world both literally and figuratively.

When Kirby was first introduced to the martial arts as a teenager in West Palm Beach, Florida, back in 1966, he was on a path that almost any young man can relate to. He played football, ran track and loved riding around on his motorcycle in his spare time.

But that path was quickly diverted to the dense jungles of Vietnam, where his life would be forever changed. Kirby was a member of the 101st Airborne Division and took part in 12 combat air assaults, parachuting into dense jungles to fight the North Vietnamese. As a point man, Kirby was in a constant state of high alert.

“It’s an art,” Kirby said. “As a point man, you’ve got to watch for trails, and you can see the bad guys’ tracks. You had to look for trip wires; you had to look for booby traps.”

Remarkably, Kirby survived every jungle ambush and hellacious firefight and was able to return home to the United States along with his good friend Spanky Spangler, who went on to become a world renowned stuntman and daredevil. Others, like Kirby’s friend Russell Deitchler, made the ultimate sacrifice for their country during the war.

Between the years of 1978 and 1986, he was rated in the top five nationally in weapons and was crowned the U.S. National Weapons Champion in 1981.

There is no way to know how Kirby’s life would have been different if he hadn’t spent those two years in Vietnam. He returned home with his body intact, and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal, both for valor. But he also suffers through bouts of PTSD in the wake of the battles he survived.

When Kirby returned home, he did so with hard-earned wisdom beyond his years. So he charted a path forward in both senses of the word.

“In marital arts, Dao means the way, your journey,” Kirby said. “What is life about? It’s not all about me. My life is about helping other people.”

With a wife and two children to care for, Kirby got busy getting his degree at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. He rode his motorcycle to campus, took classes and worked at night. It wasn’t easy, but the end result was a degree in experimental psychology and elementary education.

Following his service in Vietnam, Dale Kirby hit the national karate circuit and ranked in the top five in weapons from 1978 through 1986, winning the title of U.S. Weapons Champion in 1981.

Once he finished his education, he moved just north of Nashville with his wife and kids so the children could grow up in the same rural environment he lived in before moving to Florida. Kirby and his wife were both teachers, and Kirby quickly got involved in martial arts again.

Before long, Kirby was traveling on the national circuit and rising quickly through the ranks. Between the years of 1978 and 1986, he was rated in the top five nationally in weapons and was crowned the U.S. National Weapons Champion in 1981. He even struck up a friendship with Chuck Norris.

“In that time period, he had his own movies, but before that, he did that movie with Bruce Lee,” Kirby said. “He was always nice. There was no arrogance in him at all, and he was a heck of a good karate martial artist as well.”

Kirby originally got into karate because of the physical benefits. As a young man, Kirby recalls seeing older men from Japan in their 70s, 80s and even 90s still training, and he said, “I want to be like that.”

At 73 years old, he can still be spotted in the gym at Everlan with his wooden sword working to maintain the skills that made him an elite martial artist. His 2002 Harley-Davidson Fatboy has also helped keep him young in body and spirit.

“Some people go fishing, some people play golf, but riding a Harley – it’s like being a little kid again,” Kirby said.

The combination of karate and what he learned in his experimental psychology courses are also paying dividends mentally. Since retiring, Kirby’s son and daughter have urged him to remain active, and he has taken that advice.

“I’m on a new journey,” he said. “I’m going back to writing my goals down like I did when I was competing.”

While Kirby strives to remain on his dual paths – physical and spiritual – he’s also mindful of the paths being taken by his former students. As a teacher, coach and sensei, Kirby was able to positively influence many kids.

He is constantly reminded of their respective journeys out into the world when his phone rings and the person on the other end is inquiring about one of his former students prior to a job interview. Sometimes the calls come from the students themselves, and they often thank him for his help.

Kirby says his life has had its share of ups and downs, but when he wakes up each morning, he does his best to live each day with a sense of gratefulness.

“It’s a good day, a good day,” Kirby often says. “I’m vertical. Thank the Lord!”


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