In the early years, Robert Fusaro drove around the Twin Cities with a Midwest Karate Association sign on the top of his car. He gave karate demonstrations at local movie theaters when they screened a Bruce Lee movie. He organized karate competitions.

Fusaro, who learned karate as a G.I. stationed in Japan at the end of the Korean War, was trying to introduce something new to Minnesota: karate.

He opened the first karate school in the state, teaching the martial art in the basement of his parents’ home in Minneapolis in 1958. During the next six decades, he opened several karate studios in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, taught karate courses at the University of Minnesota, and he became one of the highest-ranking American black belts in the world. To thousands of his students, he was known as the “sensei’s sensei,” the teacher of teachers.

“He was quite literally the first person to teach karate in Minnesota and one of the first in the U.S.,” said Anita Bendickson, a Fusaro student who went on to become a karate instructor. “He was really the pioneer of karate teaching.”

Fusaro, a Minneapolis resident, died June 29 following a stroke he suffered earlier this year. He was 85.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Fusaro came to the Twin Cities at age 7, when his father, a clothing designer who immigrated to the U.S. from Italy, moved the family to Minneapolis.

After high school, he enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Japan just as the Korean War was ending. That’s where he became fascinated by the Shotokan form of karate. He stayed in Japan after he was discharged from the Army to continue his karate training.

When he returned to Minnesota, he briefly worked as an accountant, but quickly gave that up to teach karate full-time. His wife wasn’t surprised.

“I knew what I was getting into,” Gloria Fusaro said in a 1986 Star Tribune article. “We met when we were both going to business school in the 1950s, but I couldn’t see him being an accountant. I wanted him to do what he wanted.”

Fusaro opened his first dojo (studio) in downtown Minneapolis in 1960 and spent the rest of his life perfecting his skills and improving his teaching by training with some of the most prominent Japanese masters in the traditional martial art, which involves fast, powerful punching and kicking.

“He never took a vacation. He was out teaching every night,” said Joel Ertl, another Fusaro student who, with Bendickson, went on to teach at and eventually take over the Midwest Karate Association dojo in St. Paul that Fusaro started.

With a wiry physique and a beard and mane of hair that turned white with age, Fusaro looked the part of the venerable sage. Students said Fusaro had an uncanny ability to detect flaws in a student’s form.

“He never forgot a person’s technique,” Bendickson said. “He might forget your name, but he would always remember what your punch looked like.”

Still, he managed to be a compassionate, empathetic master, according to students.

“He had a very welcoming, extremely friendly, almost childlike joy,” said Steve Rouch, who started learning karate from Fusaro nearly 50 years ago.

He also was an early advocate of opening sparring tournaments to women.

“He didn’t believe that men could do something that women couldn’t do,” Ertl said.

Fusaro is survived by his wife, Gloria and two sons, Michael and Darrell Fusaro, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A public memorial is being planned for Sept. 7.