Like many who grew up in the ’70s, George Thibault watched the TV series “Kung Fu” and thought, “That’s what I want to do with my life.”
And so he did.
Not right away, mind you. First, he became a bricklayer -- until the economic downturn of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. That’s when he decided, “Hey, I can’t make any less money by starting a business.”
At the time, George (older brother of Dracut architect Philippe Thibault) had been studying Kenpo Karate for 10 years under Sensei Nick Chamberlain of Chelmsford. Nearly 40 years later, the 8th-degree black belt still considers himself a student of Chamberlain, though his mentor has since moved to Texas.
“The learning never ends,” George says. “A good teacher, first and foremost, is a good student. I always say the number-one student in the dojo is the head instructor, and if that’s not the way it is, then something’s not right.”
He opened Dracut Kenpo Karate in 1991, first in a health club on Bridge Street before moving to its own space at 145 Broadway Road the following year.
Now, 30 years later, George is retiring and moving to Florida with girlfriend Taryn Riley, a student of Kenpo student of his since 2000.
He has turned the business over to one of his longtime students, Gabriel Cutler, who has been training under George for 10 years. Gabriel says he tried several dojos “until he found the right one” – basically, the one where he actually feared the sensei. He still does, to a point.
Gabriel says George “has gone from grizzly bear to teddy bear – but he’s still a bear.”
Though three months before his 21st birthday, Gabriel has bought the business and takes over a dojo with about 75 students. A 2nd-degree black belt, he was approached by George last year after George heard him talking with another student about his future plans.
Gabriel, a Lowell native now living in Andover, plans to continue the good reputation Dracut Kenpo Karate has earned under George, keeping the name and hoping to expand opportunities for students.
And for George, much like Kwai Chang Caine from that old “Kung Fu” series, it’s time for him to leave.
He says he’s “honored and privileged” to have taught about 5,000 students from Dracut and beyond.
He says he’ll come back to Dracut now and again to help Gabriel with the transition.
“He’ll be 21 this year with the whole world ahead of him,” George says. “I wish him a lot of success.”