Webster University animation professor Michael Long changes out of his classroom attire into a pair of exhausted knickers every Tuesday and Thursday.
Long’s inspiration for teaching fencing comes from memories of his fencing coach back in his college days in 1978.
“I enjoy teaching it because, in a way, I’m hearing my own instructor from the past,” Long said. “It’s my way of reviving him,” Long said.
Long’s coach, Charles Selberg, was an international fencing gold medal champion in 1970 and fencing coach at the University of California Santa Cruz. Selberg died in March 2012 from lung cancer, something Long had not been prepared for. He had just recently seen Selberg posting fencing videos on YouTube videos and Facebook.
“It was a little shocking after seeing him do that, and then all of a sudden he was gone. He was in his 80s, but fencers usually live forever,” Long said.
Long was not able to travel to the memorial service, but said Selberg did leave a legacy. Long said he can bring Selberg back to life through his teaching at Webster.
“I can often hear his voice as I’m speaking to and teaching my students, so that’s a pleasure for me,” Long said.
Long said he studied with Selberg for about a year and a half, taking all the fencing courses he could, none of which counted for academic credit.
“My one directing teacher said, ‘Take fencing from Charles Selberg, he’ll teach you much more than fencing,’ and he did,” Long said.
Selberg had a trailer in the back of campus where he kept all his fencing equipment and where he would repair gear. Occasionally Selberg invited some of the students — Long included — after class, and Selberg talked about his fencing experiences.
Long remembers when Selberg, originally from Fargo North Dakota, would imitate his old Prussian coaches. Long now tries to imitate these accents for his students at Webster.
“He used to say, ‘It’s really teaching you to see reality. We all have ideas of what we think reality is, but when there’s a sword involved, it’s a way to test the reality if your idea is correct or not,’” Long said.
Long recalls when Selberg brought a real sword to class to prove this point.
“You can’t do this today, but one day he got out a real weapon, a very sharp weapon. He had the sharp weapon pointing at us, and he challenged us all and tried to bribe us,” Long said.
Selberg told his students if they lunged against this sharp blade, he would give them his house and car. Of course, nobody did it, recalled Long. Selberg was
trying to make the point that when there’s a sharp weapon involved, the reality is there, and his students wouldn’t do something silly and stupid like lunge against it.
“And he told us we’d remember that forever…and I did,” Long said.
Long kept a journal of Selberg’s “trailer-talks” and fencing lessons. He is using the advice he gathered from that time for a book he is writing. The book is about Selberg’s teaching and Long’s own teaching.
Long has taught at Webster since 1985 and began teaching fencing in 2003. Junior fencing student Bryan Dawe said Long is not only a coach, but also somebody to look up to.
“He just (teaches fencing) out of passion rather than a paycheck, which means a lot to me,” Dawe said.
Just as Selberg inspired Long to teach, Long has inspired one of his students to become a fencing coach.
Nathan Nelson has been fencing in Long’s class for six years. He aspires to teach. He took fencing as an undergrad until his graduation in 2009. Nelson continues to attend Long’s class while attaining his Master’s degree. He helps coach new students in Long’s class.
“His coaching of the class helps me learn to do that for myself and show other people how to do that,” Nelson said. “I think fencing is something that you can take away to your outer life, so you can use what you learn here, the technique, out there.”