by GM Jeff Helaney
My first introduction to the martial arts came through movies. Iconic stories like “Enter theDragon” and “Billy Jack” had helped bring martial arts into mainstream American culture and fueled my imagination with possibilities. I wanted to learn how to do all the amazing things I saw at the theaters. Unfortunately for my youthful self reality wasn’t nearly as glamorous as the films had made it out to be.
The first time I walked into a Dojang, I was startled by the contrasts. The smells, the sounds, and quick whirling movements burned into my brain and I was hooked. I was nervous and excited all at the same time. I soon found out that the road to competence was paved with a lot of hard work, sweat, bruises, and dedication. My story and my progression through the ranks were uniquely my own.
The 1970’s were volatile time and the martial arts market was on fireMartial arts schools came and went faster than potential students could blink .Martial arts movies were feeding the cash cow and people were jumping on board trying to ride the wave as long as they could. After a number of different missed starts, I found what I was looking to learn. Ironically, it wasn’t at a commercial school but at the home of a friend whose father had studied TaeKwon-Do in Korea while in the service. Twice a week I would join his two sons and one other student for intense classes. It was nothing like what I had learned at the different commercial schools I attended. Rank was a byproduct of learning, not an end goal. There was no push to advance because there was no money to be had. It was great time in my life, but like all good things it eventually came to an end. My instructor stopped teaching and I moved on.
Through those early college years I kept training. I picked up TaeKwon-Do and Hapkido classes at the University and even joined a sports karate club for a time. Although nothing I found quite equaled the fun I had growing up, martial arts was no less a part of my life.
Eventually, I opened my first school in a Fraternal Order of Police hall offering free classes to police officers and their families. The popularity of the classes was overwhelming. To handle the demand, I had to move the classes into a building of my own and start a non-profit to pay for the expenses. It was a labor of love and it allowed me to pass on the values that I had learned when I was younger.
Word of the school had spread quickly throughout the community. It wasn’t long until I was overwhelmed again. There wasn’t enough room to teach everyone who wanted classes. I was fortunate that due to a supportive city administration and a local school district I was allowed to try an experiment. I began a ‘free’ after school martial arts drug education program at one of the local elementary schools. Within three years the program had expanded to three different site locations and was open to students of all ages from two different school districts.
The program eventually received a commendation from the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Board of Education. One of the highlights of my long career was watching children in the program grow up and continue to teach martial arts with the same values I held dear.
After retiring from police work due to long neglected work injuries I found myself returning hometown. At first I missed my students and I missed the ability to practice martial arts the way that I did when I was younger. I found it inexcusable that my body had started to betray me on a lot of different levels. Still the desire to continue teaching was extremely strong.
We weren’t home long before we had opened another school. This time I wasn’t the primary teacher, but rather a mentor. I did what I could, but what I couldn’t I entrusted to those I loved. Today they are passing on gift that was given to me to the next generation. If there is a moral to take away from this long learned lesson is that if we open ourselves to opportunities life will find a way to make them happen.
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