In Memory of the Father of American Taekwondo

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One of the greatest legends of Taekwondo recently passed away. Holder of an honorary 10th Dan, named as one of the 200 most famous immigrants to the United States ever, friend of the biggest martial arts superstar, and hailed as the Father of Taekwondo in America. All this barely outlines a few of the many extraordinary accomplishments of Grand Master Jhoon Rhee. A life which leaves a shining example for many future generations of Taekwondo practitioners to follow.

Master Rhee was born in 1932 under the harsh Japanese occupation of Korea. He was 13 years old when the occupation ended, and it was at this age he first began practicing martial arts without the knowledge of his father, according to some sources. Among his mentors was the right hand of General Choi and leader of the original twelve grandmasters of Taekwondo, Nam Tae Hi.

After escaping capture by Communist forces during the Korean War and immigrating to the United States in the 1950’s, Master Rhee became the first to introduce Taekwondo on American soil, teaching classes on an US Airforce base in Texas from 1956. Others beat him to introducing the art to the American public, but when he finally opened his first gym in Washington DC in 1962 it became a big hit. Though the beginnings were hard, the popularity of the grandmaster’s Taekwondo studios grew, and within little more than two decades he offered students access to training in nearly a dozen schools in and around the US capital. The memorable jingle from the 1980’s TV-commercial for Jhoon Rhee’s self-defence classes had the slogan “Nobody bothers me” repeated by his son and daughter (then age 4 and 5).

Besides fulfilling the American dream by becoming a successful business owner, Master Rhee succeeded in life and gained many long-lasting friendships through the bonds he formed with his students and the people he met on his path. He became the teacher of a host of American politicians and celebrities. Most famous of the people he taught and sparred with were Muhammed Ali and Bruce Lee. The friendship with Lee began in the 1960’s and was kept alive through a long series of letters; a correspondence which Master Rhee published in a book detailing his decade long friendship with the movie star.

The grandmaster himself also flirted with the silver screen. He made an uncredited appearance in one of Bruce Lee’s movies, and he starred alongside the famous first lady of 1970’s martial arts movies, Taiwanese actress Angela Mao in the 1973 Raymond Chow production Sting of the Dragon Master (also known as When Taekwondo Strikes).

Master Rhee stayed fit and healthy to a high age and exercised vigorously even past his 80th year, following the ideal that he articulated as: “A true human being is an educator not by words alone but by being an example”. Jhoon Rhee died on the 30th of April at the age of 86.

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