ROCHESTER — Wilfredo "Papo" Villarrubia admits to selfish motivations for opening a karate school: In order to hone his own skills and become a world champion, he needed students to train with on a regular basis.
Once he reached his goal — placing second in the Super Grands National Black Belt League World Championships in 1999 — he decided it was time to start giving back to others in the community.
So Villarrubia — who has reached the level of renshi, a Japanese term for master instructor — began emphasizing to his students that physical ability is not the only requirement to achieving excellence in karate.
"I instill honesty, courtesy, respect, responsibility," he noted during a recent interview at his school, which is on Hudson Avenue. "Those are the characteristics of a good martial artist. I also started working on … getting (kids) off the street."
Villarrubia started out as a karate instructor teaching at area schools, and in 1994 opened his own dojo on Norton Street. Five years ago, he moved the Greater Rochester Martial Art Fitness Center from Norton to its current location on Hudson Avenue and created a computer lab in partnership with the Rochester City School District to offer tutoring in such subjects as math. The number of karate students fluctuates between 90 and 110, he said, noting that the school employs three other black-belt-level instructors.
As part of his mission to create a good person and athlete, Villarrubia requires report cards showing straight As before he allows minor students to test for black belts by demonstrating their skills in front of a panel of instructors from other schools, he said. Another component of the black-belt process for children is an "Intent to Promote" questionnaire that asks parents and teachers about the applicant’s behavior outside of karate class.
"I want them to become … good role models," he said.
Such high expectations show a level of caring that means a lot to his students, parents said.
"A lot of the values he reinforces here are important to me for my kids to have," said Adrian Seay, whose sons, 8 and 11, attend the school. "It carries over to the rest of their lives. … He leads by example."
Villarrubia’s ability as an athlete, a teacher and a mentor who also is a nice person are unique in the world of martial arts, according to Sensei Louis Shorter, who has worked with Villarrubia for 15 years.
"He actually cares, not about how well you do (competing) but how you are as an individual," Shorter said. "Blessings are bestowed on people who deserve them. He’s deserving (of his success) because of the ways he cares about parents and students."
Kobe Barthalemy, who will be a sixth-grader in September at Rogers Middle School in West Irondequoit, said studying with Villarrubia has helped him focus better at school and that karate has helped him develop self-discipline. He has been taking classes at Villarrubia’s school for three years.
Joshua Lewis said the karate instruction his son has received at Villarrubia’s school for the past five years has boosted his son’s motivation to do well academically as well as in the sport.
"He does a fantastic job," Lewis said of Villarrubia. "He talks to (the students) like it is. If you do something good, he congratulates them. If they do something bad, he tells them. They respect him."
Villarrubia said he learned respect and other positive values at an early age. He, his parent and two siblings came to the United States from Añasco, Puerto Rico, when in search of a better life for the family, and moved to Rochester when Villarrubia was 6. He and his two siblings went to Catholic schools through high school.
Villarrubia, who turned 50 in August, said that he continued that tradition by enrolling his own children in Catholic schools. Longtime parishioners of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel until it closed last year, he, his wife, Lynn, and three children now belong to St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Greece. His two younger children attend Mother of Sorrows School, and his oldest son will be a sophomore at Aquinas Institute this fall.
After graduating from Bishop Kearney High School, Villarrubia went on to study drafting and architecture at Alfred State College, which he said fulfilled a promise to his mother that he would go to college. A friend at Alfred invited him to join a karate club, and he was hooked after the first class.
"I was intrigued," he said. "I was a shy, introverted (person) and this was my first time away from home. I wanted to do something different. I totally fell in love with it."
Having earned his black belt while still in college, Villarrubia went on as a member of the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA) to compete in 13 tournaments around the United States as well as in Venezuela, Canada and England. He also tried out for a spot on the Puerto Rico Olympic karate team in 1988, but the team ended up not competing that year.
He was inducted into NASKA in 1988 as Sportsman of the Year and earned more than 150 trophies before his retirement in 2000.
While he derives a lot of satisfaction from seeing his students perform well in competitions and earn their own trophies, Villarrubia said he also sees that the bigger prize for many students is how the sport has helped them obtain a college education. And he’s been a teacher long enough now that students are coming back to the school beaming with pride about the scholarships they’ve received from such schools as the University of Buffalo and Clarkson University.
"(They are) coming back years later and thanking me for what I did for them," he said. "Colleges are looking for kids that deserve scholarships. … I’ve been really happy with their progress."