In his 70s, Legionnaire earns black belt, beats cancer third time

Monticello, MN

About five years ago, Legionnaire Ray Dinius embarked on one of his greatest adventures yet, and he claims it helped saved his life.

For this new adventure, Dinius swapped uniforms, replacing his military khakis with a karategi, the stars and stripes for a black belt.

Dinius, who earned his first-degree black belt in March, is 75. He said karate helped him beat his third bout of cancer.

But Dinius’ adventurous spirit came long before.

During his military service in Germany in the 1960s, he made outings to Munich, where he saw waitresses carry eight steins in one hand; a small university town in Germany, where the people recounted watching the bombs hit Stuttgart from a hillside; and Venice, Italy, where pigeons alighted on tourists’ arms in St. Mark’s Square. He recites portions of late North Carolina State Coach Jimmy Valvano’s “Never Give Up” speech over the phone. He sings impressions of gondoliers and tells would-be visitors the must-sees and must-dos of Oktoberfest.

After serving three years in the Army, Dinius returned to the Midwest, started a family, raised four children and worked restaurant and warehouse jobs. He retired earlier this year, he said.

However, in his late sixties, he began to feel something was missing. Dinius said because he was from a large family, he had to work during school and couldn’t participate in high school activities. Though he was involved with his children’s afterschool sports, he still yearned for the chance to try one out himself.

Plus, he said, he needed something to do between softball and college basketball seasons on TV.

After a “spur of the moment” decision, at age 69, Dinius found himself in a karate dojo, waiting for his first class, among a group of adults nearly half his age.

“I thought, I’ll send an email and say forget about this,” Dinius said.

Yet he was drawn back. The teacher told him to go at his own pace and to try it for a year.

“By about the fourth or fifth lesson, that’s when I got hooked,” Dinius said. He said he thought, “Oh, this is the thing I’m going to do. I’m going to give it a try. I fell in love with it.”

Still, for several months Dinius kept it a secret from his children, now adults, until he was certain he’d stick with it.

“I remember calling my youngest daughter, and I said, ‘Guess what, dear—I have taken up a new sport. She goes, ‘Oh, knitting? Sewing?’”

Meanwhile, Dinius was learning self-defense, combination forms and sparring.

“First of all, when you spar somebody, you have to be quick. First thing you have to do is keep moving. Never stand in one spot because if you stand in one spot, you’re gonna get hit boom, boom, boom. And you always have to keep your hands up,” he said.

He’s been knocked down (once after a kick to the head), but he manages to keep getting back up.

When Dinius was working to advance from advanced red to a brown belt, he said he considered quitting. His instructor, Len Zepeda, pushed him to continue trying.

“And the more I tried, the worse I did,” Dinius said. “I went home on that Thursday night and I was determined I was going to go in there and walk into his office and say I quit.”

But he didn’t. Brown belt is too close to black belt.

“I’m glad I didn't because if I would’ve quit there, I would have defeated myself, and I would have defeated my purpose and my goal,” he said.

Three years ago, Dinius was diagnosed with bladder cancer. This was his third cancer diagnosis in 17 years.

“I think the third time probably was the worst of all. . . . I couldn’t believe it.”

He claimed karate kept him healthy.

“It has really helped me with the cancer—that’s what my doctor told me. You have to keep your body active, you have to keep moving,” he said. He said his doctors no longer mention his cancer, just his karate.

He urged other retirees to find a sport and stick with it—even if it’s just walking. Plus, the activity helped him keep his mind off the cancer.

“I know lots of people they found out they had cancer, they go home, lock the doors, and say, ‘Well, that’s it, I’m gonna die,’” he said. “You have to keep a positive attitude, because if I sat back and woke up every day worrying about my cancer, my whole life would be consumed. . . . I don’t think of my cancer anymore. I just think of my life. . . doing what I want, and keeping my positive attitude that you can do anything.”

Dinius’ great-niece, Alyssa Little, died from cancer at the age of 24. He said this made him want to share his positive story—to spread happiness and encouragement.

Aside from meeting his goal, the most important aspect Dinius said he’s learned about himself through karate is his knack for teaching.

“I love to help young people,” he said.

It has helped him score points with his grandchildren, who play sports in school.

“I want them to be proud of me. They tell their friends and they’re like, ‘Really? How old is he?’ They get a lot of compliments and I get a lot of different compliments,” he said.

Dinius said he hopes his personal achievement will help other people to have faith in themselves.

“It just shows that you’re never too old to try anything new. A lot of people say, ‘I’m retired now and I’m too old to do this.’ And I always tell them age is only a number. Watch the television, read the newspaper. Age makes no difference. It’s about what you want to do to prove yourself and you have to do it. I want them to know if you want to reach a goal, do it, no matter what age you are,” Dinius said.

Since achieving his major goal, Dinius has set a new one.

“Now I’m going for my second-degree black belt,” Dinius said. “I’m hoping I get it. I would be 77 when I get my second-degree black belt.”

But at the black belt ceremony, Zepeda pushed Dinius further.

“‘Third-degree black belt!’ I said, ‘Yes, sir. . . .’ ‘Fifth-degree black belt!’ I just stood there for a few seconds and looked at him. I said, ‘Well, with the help of the Lord, I can do it, but I’ll have to be 200 years old,’” Dinius said.

Until then, he’ll follow his own advice, and keep moving.

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