Soo Woong Lee, center, and his students pose with their tournament trophies, circa 1968-1969. To the left of Lee is Phillip Cunningham, followed by Furman Marshall; this pair would found the Simba Dojang, which carried on Lee’s teachings. In the first row, second from left, holding a trophy is Itch Wilkinson, who would grow up to be one of the nation’s elite taekwondo fighters. Photos courtesy of the Lee Family.
Taekwondo grandmaster Soo Woong Lee and his students created a special kind of magic in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s a legacy that continues to this day.
Something Worth Fighting For
by JOHN CHA
It was 1968, when America was in the midst of racially integrating schools across the land. President Lyndon Johnson was touting his historic legislative coup featuring the “Great Society” and affirmative action, along with the “War on Poverty.” All of these momentous federal programs seemed to have skipped the southeast part of Washington, D.C., just a few miles from Capitol Hill. This impoverished, predominantly African American neighborhood was best known for drug abuse, more than anything else.
To say that it was desperate times is an understatement, according to community workers like Phillip Cunningham and Furman Marshall, who devoted themselves to keeping kids off drugs and avoiding the temptations of the streets. “We faced drugs, violence and school dropouts,” recalled Marshall. “It was hell for young people. Then, here comes an angel wearing a taekwondo uniform.”
That angel was Grandmaster Soo Woong Lee, then a young man of 26, who had just arrived from Korea. He was one of the first Korean taekwondo masters to arrive in the U.S. in the 1960s. One day, his mentor Ki Whang Kim took him to the “karate class” that Kim taught at the local YMCA (it was actually taekwondo, but the latter was not a household name back then) and introduced Lee to the youth. Lee didn’t say anything; he couldn’t speak English. But he proceeded to demonstrate his taekwondo form: leg splits high in the air, spinning kicks and punches so fast that his arms and legs blended into a blur, leaving the group of African American youth speechless.
This encounter marked the beginning of a relationship that would last for decades.
“From the first moment, the kids wanted to fly. Just like Grandmaster Lee,” recalled Marshall, who was training under Kim at the time.
And fly these young people eventually would. Under Lee’s instruction and guidance first at the YMCA and later at his own dojangs (training studios for martial artists) in Virginia, these youth would eventually pour their hearts into the sport, which at that time, only wealthy whites could afford. The young boys and girls would train hard and participate in tournaments all over the eastern seaboard, and win them all. Literally. From about 1968 to 1976, Lee’s students dominated the sport on the East Coast.
Not all of them were kids, though. Among them were Cunningham and Marshall, in their 30s at the time, who already had black belts from Master Kim, a pioneer in American taekwondo. They would become students of Lee and among those bringing home huge trophies from tournaments. Those prizes quickly grabbed the attention of the inner-city youngsters.
“I saw their faces brighten whenever our team came back with trophiestaller than they. They wanted big trophies, too,” said Lee, now in his 70s and living in a retirement community in San Ramon, California. He recalled how the kids coveted trophies so much that they were willing to undergo rigorous training. What he focused on first was discipline. When they entered the dojang, they were to bow to the flags—South Korean and the U.S. They counted cadence in Korean, hana, dul, saet, naet, as they practiced hitting and kicking. Lee taught them how to meditate and empty their minds.
“They had so many distractions—drug pushers, shootings, muggings, drunks all around the streets. And the police,” Lee described, speaking in Korean. “When I opened a dojang in Virginia, in the white suburb, they followed me out there, and the cops were always following them around. Meditation helped them forget about all these things.”
Lee said he didn’t charge the youth who came from poor families and had to ride the bus from downtown Washington, D.C., to get to the dojang.
Asked how he was able to communicate with his students, he smiled and said, “It was not difficult. I taught them Korean, and they learned fast. It’s all about mah uhm—what’s in your heart and soul is important. I found the black culture so similar to Korean culture. They have jeong, just like Koreans. That’s why we hit it off so well together. They are so warm-hearted, so generous and unpretentious. You need that kind of purity in order to master taekwondo.
“You also need kimchi!” Lee added, laughing heartily. “My students loved kimchi. My wife made her kimchi and brought it to the dojang. They were convinced that kimchi helped them win tournaments.”
The grandmaster grew very close to his students, with whom he often spent more time than with his own family, said Lee’s eldest son, Will Yun Lee, who was born in 1971. Will, a film and TV actor, is named after one of his father’s students, William S. Hart, who financially helped the elder Lee open his first dojang, Lee’s School of Karate, in Falls Church, Virginia.
Will recalled a childhood where his dad was constantly traveling to matches. Indeed, Lee’s students entered tournaments virtually every weekend, from New York to North Carolina. They often won gold, silver and bronze in a single tournament. At times, Lee’s students faced each other in the finals after working their way up through the preliminary rounds. “Sometimes we would just flip a coin [to decide the winner], instead of fighting each other,” recalled Lee’s former student Tacuma Yero, who at the time went by the name Ben Taylor. Yero, now 74 and living in Texas, started studying under Lee while in his late 20s, after hearing about him through Marshall. At the time, he said everyone was into karate and Bruce Lee, but Yero, an amateur boxer, thought martial arts wasn’t for him—until he saw Master Lee practicing his taekwondo moves at the Y.
“He was doing a sidekick … and he hit the heavy bag, and it would almost fold in half with his pow,” said Yero. “I thought, damn, what is going on? That fascinated me. This is too much. I gotta try this.”
After that, Yero said, even as Lee would move his dojang to various locations in Virginia, he followed him. “Everywhere he went, I went,” said Yero. “I just fell in love with the martial art through him. I made it to fourth-degree black belt with him.”
Although it was a master-student relationship, Yero said it ran deeper than that. He would get to know Lee and his wife Jing Ja on a personal level, and fondly recounted the day the couple introduced him to kimchi. “After I bit into, I couldn’t get enough water. My mouth was on fire,” Yero said, laughing.
“We had a ball,” he said of his times with Lee.
But when it came to training, the taekwondo master pushed his students hard. Yero remembered Lee taking them to the beach, having them run in the sand and practice their kicks in the water. Yero also described one particular all-black belt class session when Lee wanted to show his students how to fight without being noticed. “He cut the light out and had us work out in darkness,” said Yero. “We would have to close our eyes and do the form, and you’re supposed to end up in the same position you started off in. You need to know where you are at all times.”
Yero said even if Lee’s instructions at first didn’t make sense to his students, there was “no discussion. … It was, ‘yes, sir.’” He commanded that much respect and authority. He also stood fiercely by his principles. At one tournament in North Carolina, Lee’s students were winning trophies all day, until one particular match, when Lee noticed his student was not getting the right calls for obvious points and also receiving unfair penalties, said Yero. Lee began arguing with the referee. After that, Lee told his students, “We go. Come on.” As the students picked up their trophies, however, their master ordered them to leave the prizes behind.
“These were beautiful trophies—like 5 feet tall!” recalled Yero. “But it was like the teacher said you leave them, so you leave them.
“He just wanted to show … you don’t just go along to get along,” added Yero. “[His thinking was,] ‘we’re the best here, and they’re cheating. We shouldn’t be punished for being the best.”
By the late 1970s, Yero would open his own dojang, an offshoot of Lee’s school, and would have Lee assess his students when it came time for promotion. In fact, it was one of Yero’s students, an orphan named Itch Wilkinson, who would come to study with Lee and become like a son to him—as well as one of his finest students.
“We bonded right away,” said Lee of the junior high student. “He often came home with me, and when he was not at home with me, he slept at the dojang. He loved everything about Korea. He couldn’t get enough of Korea from us. He turned out to be one of my best students. He loved kimchi and Korean songs. He used to sing ‘Arirang’ to my son.
“I wanted to make him a world class martial artist,” added Lee, as his voice began to take on a somber tone. “But he was killed by a gunman. He was working as a security guard at a department store. He was chasing after a robber one day, and [the robber] turned around and pulled a gun and shot him. I was in Napa when I got the bad news. My family and I had just moved there, and he was to join us in Napa later. It never happened.”
Will says his father still talks about Wilkinson to this day, and misses him like a son.
Like Yero, Marshall and Cunningham would go on to open their own dojang offshoots of Lee’s school. What started out in Marshall’s basement would become the Simba Dojang (simba means “lion” in Swahili), which still has its main studio in D.C. today with several affiliate schools across the country. There have been some 5,000 students who have come through the Simba schools, and, though many have never met Master Lee, they know his name and are learning his teachings.
Last year Marshall held a banquet in Washington, D.C., to honor Lee, who retired in 2005. There, the teacher reunited with some of his former students for the first time in more than 30 years.
“That was the most gratifying gathering I’ve ever experienced,” Lee said. “I got to see my old students. I was so happy to see them and learn that they turned out so well. They all went on to become leaders in the community as lawyers, teachers and grandmasters in martial arts. I was so proud of them.”
At the reunion, Marshall credited Lee, as well as his earlier teacher Master Kim, for being responsible for much of Simba Dojang’s success, and helping youth stay off the streets through martial arts. Marshall, a grandmaster himself now, inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame and who still teaches taekwondo, then motioned for the 300-plus, mostly African American students there to stand and yell, “Charyeot kyeongrae!” as Lee faced them and returned the bow.
“Looking at my father, I think he never realized, until that very moment, what he helped nurture,” said Will, who attended the reunion.
The occasion inspired the actor to reflect on his father’s legacy, and last year, he made a series of short YouTube videos, called The Training Diary of Will Yun Lee. The videos show Will, an accomplished martial artist himself who uses these skills in many of his roles, trying to re-earn his black belt from his father. He also talks about the appreciation he came to have for the work the grandmaster did decades earlier. “I realized he was doing something special, turning boys into men, giving them something to fight for, a dream to chase. And it wasn’t until much later that I realized that the sacrifices he was making would teach me what it was to be a man, and maybe to try and leave something better for the next generation,” Will says in a voiceover in the final video of the three-part series. “He had taught men to fly.”
These days the elder Lee, still lean and fit, is enjoying life in retirement with his wife in Northern California. He teaches the occasional seminar for his affiliate schools in Petaluma, California, plays golf as much as possible and revels in the joy of having his first grandchild, Cash, Will’s son.
“All along, I had in back of my mind that my son Will would take over my work, but he went to Hollywood, instead,” said Lee, who also has a younger son, Brian. “Well, he now enjoys martial arts in two ways, in the dojang and on movies.
“I now have my grandson to train,” Lee added, laughing. “I’ve waited so long for Will to give me a grandson!”
This article was published in the March 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the March issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).