Teacher's Still Kicking
07/13/2003 Instructor's clientele has grown over 25 years
By SCOTT McDONALD / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
The Kung Fu boom that brought Kwan Kyun Kim to the United States nearly turned out to be a bust. The land of opportunity looked bleak when he moved to Dallas 25 years ago. He had trouble getting his business off the ground. His native Korean tongue heavily outweighed his light – and very choppy – English, and visitors to his business showed up more to watch Bruce Lee imitations than anything else.
Now that a quarter of a century has passed, Kim, the proprietor, manager and full-time instructor at Kim's College of Tae Kwon Do, looks back on the years with a smile on his face. "I'm very happy here doing what I do. I love teaching," said Kim, an eighth-degree black belt who moved from Korea in 1978 to teach his sport to Americans.
Inside Kim's small office adjacent to the dojang, or workout studio, pictures of famous pupils include former Dallas Cowboys Herschel Walker and Jim Jeffcoat and John Marshall, a senior state District Court Judge. Another photo is of former President Gerald Ford, for whom Kim performed demonstrations while serving as an instructor for the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division in Korea. After eight years of teaching self-defense and combat training to American troops, and about the same time Bruce Lee's kung fu movies became a smashing success stateside, some friends persuaded Kim to try his luck in the United States.
"They said I could make a lot of money here," Kim said. "Back then everybody wanted to fight like Bruce Lee." So Kim moved his family to Dallas and opened his business on the northwest corner of Spring Valley and Central Expressway in Richardson, the same place as today.
Luring curious spectators wasn't a problem for Kim at the time. Attracting students was. He said one of the biggest obstacles was gaining the attention, and respect, of the local community. "People would come by and challenge me when we first got here," said Kim, who was a sixth-degree black belt in 1978. "I'm a very small person, and they wanted to see if I could fight." All challengers got more than they could handle from the 5-4 Kim, who calmly stood his ground. Although curious passersby eventually began signing up for his classes, his business grew at a snail's pace.
Mason Miller stopped in on several occasions in 1979 to watch Grandmaster Kim teach classes. Wanting to learn martial arts, Miller started attending classes. Now, Miller is a fourth-degree black belt and still shows up for classes. "It's taught me self-control, self-confidence, and it's really boosted my self-esteem," Miller said. Kim stresses courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and an indomitable spirit. Taekwondo is the art of hand and foot fighting in a system of forms, stances and kicks based on a defense against enemy attacks. According to Kim's promotional brochures, a true student of martial arts values peace and quiet, avoiding arguments or physical confrontation.
Kim's calmness can be seen in a face that's solid as stone or a stare from his piercing brown eyes. He personally teaches all classes, using the same forcefulness he learned when he began learning the sport as a 10-year-old. His daughter, Cathy Kim, is a third-degree black belt who helps teach some of the children's classes. "I started coming up here when I was 4, then one day he just put a uniform on me," said Cathy, 26, who graduated from Ursuline in 1994. "I only help out with the children. He teaches all the others."
And Grandmaster Kim hardly misses any classes. One time he had four wisdom teeth pulled and taught his classes that day. He hasn't taken much vacation in 25 years, and the common cold or the flu bug doesn't keep him from work. Cluttered in his office around photos, certificates, flags, books and awards are knives, numchucks, stars and boomerangs, which are weapons occasionally used in training. Kim said the weapons aren't used in traditional training anymore.
"You don't have to defend against knives and stars anymore, but against guns," said Kim, who also teaches self-defense in situations involving guns. Kim has been asked to appear in episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger and as an extra in kung fu movies, but he has rejected the offers.
The interest in martial arts in the Bruce Lee era attracted Kim to this country. American dollars and a bad Korean economy landed him in Dallas. Although business was tough in the beginning stages, Kim has developed a successful business that teaches morals, discipline and respect. His English is still slightly broken but much better than it was in the 1970s. His children grew up in Texas. One of them is an SMU graduate and the other is enrolled at Baylor. They're all Catholic and all citizens. So Kim grins when he thinks of his American dream story. "Family is first, and I love them very much," Kim said. "If this makes them happy, then that makes me happy."