The Martial Arts Master
BY ELLEN GILLETTE
One night in 1990, when Bob Fabrey was a police officer in Ohio, a bar fight broke out between two men. It took Fabrey and another officer to control one man outside the bar. Fabrey, who had been injured in the altercation, managed to get the crazed man inside his patrol car, while the other officer took the first man away in his.
En route, the offender with Fabrey started choking. Seeing that the man — under the influence of some substance — had swallowed his tongue, Fabrey rushed him to the hospital for treatment. He then took the prisoner to the closest station and locked him in a holding cell alone. While Fabrey was enjoying a cup of tea, smoke started billowing from under the holding cell’s door. Apparently his prisoner had found a lighter hidden under a mattress and set it on fire.
Knowing how angry his wife would be if he died doing something stupid, Fabrey rushed in and found him in the thick smoke. But by that time, the door had jammed shut and other officers had gone for help. Fabrey, well-trained in martial arts, back-kicked the door until it opened and pulled the man to safety. However, in the process, he lost 60 percent of his lung capacity from smoke inhalation. He stayed with the police department but was severely affected.
As he says at the beginning of a 1995 episode of Top Cop that featured the event, “I believe that when you take the oath to protect and serve you have to do it. You can’t always pick and choose who you’re going to protect and serve.”
Fabrey didn’t always plan on being a cop. He grew up in Pennsylvania surrounded by aunts and uncles.
“I had a wonderful childhood in the ’40s and ’50s,” he says.
In high school, he played football and attended California University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship. Planning a career in speech therapy, Fabrey also hoped for a shot at professional football.
“I wasn’t large so I joined the Marines to bulk up.”
Somewhere along the way, that dream was hamstrung by an injury.
After his stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, Fabrey went into law enforcement in his home state of Pennsylvania, combining what he’d learned in the military with police training, and eventually retiring in Ohio. By 1979, Fabrey also taught in law enforcement academies, developing what he calls the friendly force approach.
“You want to subdue a resisting subject without causing injury to the subject or to yourself.”
Since then, he has trained instructors for the Marine Corps, Coast Guard, FBI and law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
Fabrey was also a martial arts consultant on movie sets, working with actors including Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone. Telly Savalas, the lollipop-sucking cop in the 1970s television show Kojak, was one of his best students.
However, even though the movie people treated him well, he says, “Hollywood wasn’t my place — too fast.”
Fabrey certainly made a mark for himself elsewhere. A four-time world champion and the U.S. team coach for the 1979 Japan World Open Karate Tournament, Fabrey has been a world record holder for breaking blocks of ice; has been inducted into various halls of fame; has written training programs and magazine articles; and holds patents for several military/law enforcement products.
In 1996, Fabrey helped train 2,500 volunteer officers from 50 countries for the Atlanta Olympics. For two weeks, day and night, he trained officers in handling threats according to U.S. law.
“In Russia, for example, they were used to breaking heads and dragging bodies — you can’t do that in Atlanta,” he says.
After a lifetime of high-profile instruction however, Fabrey divides his time between sailing, writing, watching his youngest grandson and instructing kids in martial arts at the Police Athletic League in Port St. Lucie, where the family has lived since 2004. He is assisted in classes by his wife, Kathy, a former student and an eighth degree black belt.
Rounding out the instructional staff are son, Joe; daughter, Dawn; and Rich Wilson, one of Fabrey’s students from Ohio who settled in Port St. Lucie and encouraged his former teacher to follow suit. The three Fabrey grandchildren are enrolled in the program.
“It’s important to train the leaders of tomorrow early,” Fabrey says. “They learn martial arts, but we never raise our voices. We build them up. It’s a sweet Marine discipline approach.”
Patriarch of the three-generation martial arts family, Fabrey has been breaking boards, stacks of windows and blocks of ice — and teaching others how to do the same — for 60 years. Nearing 80, he describes himself like the old Timex watch ads: “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”
Lives in: Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Retired police officer; volunteer martial arts director for Port St. Lucie Police Athletic League
Family: Wife, Kathy, for 44 years; daughter, Dawn; son, Joe; grandchildren, Carter, Carmen and “Chief”
Education: California University of Pennsylvania, University of Metaphysics
Hobbies: Martial arts, sailing
Who or what inspires me: “Being alive, having survived many bad situations.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I’m quite private, cocooned as a family, who is my life.”