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Learning life’s lessons from a ‘master’

JohnFountaone Grandmaster Kwan Pil Kim’s students breaks board during testing as instructor looks on.

JohnFountain, one of Grandmaster Kwan Pil Kim’s students, breaks a board during testing as the instructor looks on.

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Updated: January 21, 2013 3:47PM

OK, first I had to get over calling another man “Master.”

It didn’t hurt that this master could kick my butt and also put a few lumps upside my head — a la Bruce Lee.

It was my son’s fault that I was even in this predicament — at age 49 — of kicking, spinning, punching and breaking boards under the tutelage of Headmaster Kwan Pil Kim. And I was unaware that we might also learn so much more from Kim.

My boy, ever since age 5 or 6, dreamed of becoming a karate kid.

I had taken taekwondo in college, though I advanced only a few belt ranks before quitting. I vowed to someday finish what I had started. Then life happened.

Enter my kid and his incessant plea to study the martial arts. Add Jaden Smith as the new Karate Kid. And martial arts classes of some sort were a lock for our future.

I say “us” because I know injuries, mishaps and assorted spills can happen when kids are engaged in any sport — and certainly martial arts. I needed to make sure the instructor — even if he didn’t exactly exude the gentle persona of Mr. Miyagi — didn’t transform into the instructor from hell.

Since I was going to be there, keeping watch, I figured I might as well make studying martial arts a shared experience.

I searched for a few years before hearing about a martial arts program at Bally Total Fitness. The program — now defunct since L.A. Fitness bought out Bally late last year — was known as Total Martial Arts or TMA. (The buyout and instant dissolution of TMA is a story for another day. Suffice it to say it felt to many TMA-ers like a dropkick to the gut.)

I happened upon Master Kim one late-spring afternoon, having visited other clubs and observed their teaching, or, in some cases, the lack thereof. Not to mention a lack of discipline and structure that left me with a sense of queasiness.

But at TMA, it was clear from the start that Kim, 37, born in Seoul, South Korea — among dozens of bona fide Korean martial artists who studied taekwondo in their homeland — was the right one. Highly trained, he was gentle but stern, authentic and kind, and challenging with a certain style and grace.

When TMA folded, according to Kim, many of those instructors in the U.S. on work visas had to return to Korea. Kim could have called it quits. He chose instead — with the support of parents (me included), students and community — to try and launch his own school.

He did just that, naming it Woori Martial Arts Academy—“woori,” a Korean word meaning, “our.” The school is based in south suburban Matteson and also Evergreen Park. ( )

“I wasn’t sure,” Kim, a 6th-degree black belt, told me about his decision to launch. “I was really nervous,” he added, explaining that he had never run his own business.

A year later, his American dream lives on.

And in so doing, he is teaching our children — aside from the discipline of taekwondo, Korean culture and language — other lasting lessons. And they are lessons perhaps fitting for the season:

That “family” knows no boundaries — geographic, cultural or otherwise. That life is what you make it. And that home really is where the heart is.

“I just brought the taekwondo and my country’s culture,” Kim said, of his dream for building a life as an immigrant in America. “It was my best.”

And that’s the most anyone could ever expect. Even from a Master.

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