County Faces: Brett Varnum of Easton
Brett Varnum of Easton began studying martial arts in 1972 at age 11, and his initial interest has led him not only to a number of black belts, but to an enthusiasm for sharing the positive life lessons martial arts can impart.
Varnum took classes in various forms of martial arts such as Kempo, Shotokan, wrestling, Judo, Aikido and Kendo until 1987, when he met instructor John Poliquin, who taught a form of self-defense martial arts known as Ninjutsu.
Ten years later, he became a student under Stephen Hayes, who was Poliquin’s direct teacher and had established his own branch of Ninjutsu known as To-Shin Do. After more training, Varnum moved up from a second-degree black belt to a third-degree black belt, one in To-Shin Do from Hayes and the other in Ninjutsu from Masaaki Hatsumi, based in Noda City, Japan. He continued earning higher-ranked black belts under both instructors until fully committing to Hayes’ teachings in 2003.
Varnum spent many years as the owner and head instructor for the Presque Isle Quest Center, originally owned by Hayes, before he and Poliquin established an organization called Discovery Martial Arts Association, which uses the Ninjutsu style of teaching. Varnum is now Poliquin’s highest ranked student, with a ninth-degree black belt, and holds the title of Kyoshi, which means “one who is responsible for the teaching of teachers.”
He notes that To-Shin Do and Ninjutsu both focus on more realistic, practical forms of self-defense as opposed to training for martial arts competitions. Aside from self-defense skills, martial arts training has given him and his students lessons that have positively impacted their entire lives.
“I’ve seen people start off more timid but then learn to face their inner fears. Some people who tend to be more aggressive can learn self control,” Varnum said. “They learn different ways to approach problems and how to adapt to change. The great thing about the teachings that I’ve received is that they let individuals determine what success means for themselves.”
Many of Varnum’s and Poliquin’s former students have set up their own Discovery Martial Arts schools across the United States, Canada and in South Africa. Varnum travels to many of those schools throughout the year to hold special trainings and seminars.
One of the most rewarding parts of teaching for Varnum is passing down his knowledge of martial arts to students, many of whom continue that tradition in their own schools.
“I love working with students, seeing them progress and sharing in their victories,” Varnum said. “I’ve made good friends with them and other instructors over the years and we’ve become like an extended family.”
For Varnum, community service is another way that his “family” has extended throughout Aroostook County and beyond. He has been a member of Rotary International since 1987, serving as president of the Presque Isle Rotary Club from 1996 to 1997 and Rotary District Governor from 2005 to 2006. He has made trips to countries such as Guatemala, Mexico and South Africa, and taken part in projects to help improve the lives of those in need.
Currently Varnum and his wife, Jo Varnum, are part of a Rotary International project to install eco-friendly stoves, biosand water filters and composting toilets in the Montericco area on the west coast of Guatemala. The installations will reduce saltwater contamination of drinking water and the need for firewood, which will then decrease pollution inside homes.
Varnum said that growing up in Aroostook County helped him develop a passion and determination to influence positive change in the world.
“My parents were always involved in community service, and as a Cub Scout I was always doing chores for the elderly, clearing hiking trails or cleaning up parks with other kids,” Varnum said.
“I think the world becomes better for everyone when people think about someone other than themselves.”