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En Garde!

MU professor fields questions during the day and fences at night
Monday, April 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:19 a.m. CDT, Thursday, June 26, 2008

Friends say Pat Peritore is a mild-mannered professor of political theory during the day, but at night he’s a dueling sword fighter — even though he can’t even stand the sight of blood.

“It’s an interesting dichotomy,” said Rick Hardy, Peritore’s colleague in MU’s political science department. “Pat is a mild individual, and to imagine him in a fencing outfit, he’s the last person I would think of doing that.”

It wasn’t until Peritore failed at all other sports that he took up fencing. After receiving a C in ballroom dancing in college, Peritore began fencing to fulfill his physical education requirements.

“I couldn’t catch. I can’t throw,” Peritore said. “My body was made for this. This is the only sport it was made for.”

Nearly half a century has passed since college, and Peritore is now teaching a new generation of fencers the classical French style. His goal is to build fencers for life instead of short-lived competitors.

“If you can fence a good match, there’s something really beautiful about it,” he said. “Once you fence somebody, you know them really well. You know them psychologically. Everything is out there — it’s personal combat. That’s the fun of it. When you start to compete, you learn to take shortcuts and cheap shots to get the quick win, and you don’t develop a rounded fencer.”

Peritore received a scholarship in college to study under Delmar Calvert, who learned to fence in France and was a guerrilla fighter in the French resistance. Peritore said the dynasty of instructors Calvert studied with dates back to Napoleon.

“I just trained to be a competitor, but what happened is I learned how to teach. I absorbed the technique,” he said.

Learning the strategy and technique essential to fencing is not the same as telling a football player, “Go tackle,” Peritore said. The competition involves a long chain of strategic moves falling into place like dominos, such as throwing fake attacks and counter attacks to build up to the moment of pouncing at the opponent.

“Actually, it’s fun because you can do the game all your life,” Peritore said. “You make up for speed with smarts. You get more tactical. You get more tricky. I’m the king of cheap shots.”

Often fencing is compared to chess because of the thinking involved. In considering fencing as an intellectual venture, it’s not so uncharacteristic for Peritore. Peritore has studied political theory extensively in his travels of more than a dozen countries. He also is learning classical guitar.

Students acknowledge Peritore’s intelligence, but they still find his identity as a fencer unusual.

“It’s kind of hard to try to imagine him being a fencer,” said Zach Daughtrey, a student in Peritore’s Modern Political Theory course. “I think he’s a very intelligent person; I just don’t see him being much of a fencer.”

After moving to mid-Missouri, Peritore returned to fencing after a decade-long hiatus. However, his career makes it difficult for him to advance to the top level. Peritore is a Prevost d’armes, one tier below master.

To reach the class of master fencer, Peritore would have to give fencing lessons to students in front of four masters acting as judges. The judges critique teaching and would tear him apart, he said. Then Peritore would have to become a national referee, which he said he’s “terrible” at. Finally, Peritore would write a dissertation on some aspect of fencing for a panel of master fencers to take into consideration.

The process shows that the sport is elite and complex — and why, Peritore said, it will never be widely popular.

He said bowling was considered as an option to replace fencing in the Olympics. But he said he does not find a group of “fat guys drinking cocktails” any more exciting for the public than fencing.

The complexity of fencing, however, makes it more difficult than bowling for outsiders to follow.

“Fencing is on TV and shown in the Olympics for about five minutes,” Hardy said. “How is it scored? What are these white suits? Is it dangerous? I think it is. It’s fascinating that he does this.”

Fencing also can be dangerous. The dueling sword, known as a sabre, can leave a person’s body bruised and sore. As for the scoring, Peritore said it is difficult even for him to judge.

But in the workout rooms of Dexter’s Tae Kwon Do, Peritore is showing a new generation the complexities and dangers of fencing. He is so eager to recruit fencers and so confident that newcomers will love the game that he offers the first lesson for free.

“I have learned all of the techniques of the game,” said David Lemasters, who has studied with Peritore for more than two years. “Now I just come out here to have fun.”


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