By Jenny Wolff
Haeng Ung Lee was a multi-faceted individual. He was a military man who loved to golf, run, and tell jokes.
He also loved martial arts.
It was his passion for this pastime that led the now-infamous Eternal Grand Master and his dear friend, Richard Reed, to establish the American Taekwondo Association (ATA) in 1969.
Since then, ATA has become a household name in the industry and remains the largest North American martial arts organization dedicated to the discipline of taekwondo. What began with a simple vision to change lives and make a difference has turned in to a global phenomenon.
This summer, ATA celebrates its 50th anniversary during its annual Worlds event. This is the perfect opportunity to reflect on the last five decades and look forward to the promising future.
How It All Began
Lee began studying martial arts as a teenager in Korea in 1954. By 1956, he was in the Korean Army, teaching the art to members of the military intelligence units. Soon after, he moved to Osan, the United States Air Force Base in South Korea. This move proved critical to his journey for two reasons: First, he began teaching taekwondo to Americans. And second, he met Reed.
The two quickly forged a deep friendship through their training. As Grand Master Bill Clark, 9th degree black belt and owner of multiple ATA schools, reflects, “Without the physical talent and emotional vision of those two, ATA never would have made it. Those two were like magic.”
The friendship was so close, in fact, that when Reed was reassigned to a station in Omaha, Nebraska, Lee followed suit with a visa and later citizenship, under Reed’s guidance.
It was there in Omaha that Lee and Reed opened their first ATA school. The school measured about 1,000 square feet of hardwood and mirrors—and about 15 students. One of those students was Clark.
Clark, who was already training in kickboxing and judo at the YMCA, wanted to see what the school was all about. He joined almost immediately. Clark explains that it was a combination of dedicated salesmanship and the excitement of Lee and Reed that had him “hooked.”
“I was a factory worker who loved self-defense and martial arts,” Clark remembers. “They had a vision, and I bought into the dream.”
A Bigger Vision
More and more students and instructors in the Midwestern region began buying in to the dream, as well. In 1969, that dream took an official name. The American Taekwondo Association was established.
So, how did the growth truly begin? One of the most adored stories in ATA history is the “Map Story.” Grand Master Robert Allemier, one of Eternal Grand Master Lee’s first students, recalls Lee sharing how he wanted to expand the expand the ATA throughout the United States.
“Eternal Grand Master pulled out a napkin and drew a picture of the U.S.,” Allemier explains. “And he just put dots all over the napkin and said ‘I want schools all over this country.’”
Reed, skeptical, replied, “You don’t realize how big the United States is.”
But it seems Lee did understand. Today, with nearly 900 ATA licenses active in the United States (and nearly 100 worldwide), the organization continues to grow and is seeking new licensees in new territories to continue the dream.
A Move Toward Greatness
ATA was growing fast, but so was martial arts in general. H.U. Lee was on a mission to keep up. During one of the many traveling martial arts exhibitions the founder did with his family, called “The Flying Lee Brothers,” Lee first came to Arkansas. He liked that it was centrally located in the U.S. and he always said that the landscape reminded him of his home in South Korea.
Also, the license plates for the state at the time said it was “The Land of Opportunity.”
A man with a vision needed no other sign that this state would be home to the new headquarters for ATA. Therefore, in 1977, the ATA headquarters moved to Little Rock, Arkansas’ capital.
Reed, though always committed to ATA until his death in 2016, remained a silent part of the operation. He was always there to offer guidance on the business side, but he allowed Lee to take the reins on instruction.
In Little Rock, Lee began taking his dream to new levels, which meant developing outstanding instructors and powerful curriculum.
Grand Master Soon Ho Lee, his oldest brother and ultimately his successor, remembers clearly what Eternal Grand Master saw for ATA.
“My brother believed in teaching the whole student,” he says. “By that, I mean that he wanted students to develop physically, mentally, emotionally and (in a way that is) balanced. That is still the fundamental concept of our business today.”
With several of his brothers having joined him in the United States, and with the help of exceptional leaders such as Clark and Allemier, Lee had a team of leaders to plant in different regions of the United States. This group would also help with creating a top-notch, coordinated curriculum.
With ever-growing competition popping up across the country, Lee never wavered from his vision to be the best. His team of leaders felt the same way.
Clark explains, “I don’t remember every feeling threatened by another martial art. We were so different and so totally purpose driven. A lot of them didn’t know what they were doing.”
By contrast, the Eternal Grand Master always wanted his people to know what they were doing, which began the next phase of the journey.
In a new home, it was time for Eternal Grand Master Lee to kick his organization up a notch. It was time to build more instructors and create a dynamic curriculum that would keep students motivated.
Instructors, first. People needed to know how to teach the ATA way, consistently. That’s why ATA is known for being the first organization of its kind to provide instruction manuals. The system Eternal Grand Master introduced was distinct and professional.
As Clark recalls, “You create great instructors—that’s how you grow. People who liked structure and discipline would fit in here.”
Grand Master Allemier agrees: “I believe what has stayed the same in ATA over the years has been the student-instructor relationship. The loyalty between instructors and the loyalty to the organization…is to put forth that effort of building ‘one black belt at a time.’”
With instructors in place, it was time to take the curriculum to a new level. Therefore, in 1983, Lee introduced the Songahm style of taekwondo. This system of teaching is unique to ATA and is one that Lee believed “embraced the strength and beauty of taekwondo kicking techniques.”
It also showcases a clear path from white belt to Grand Master, so that students have foresight in their next steps toward their personal goals.
Once Lee had introduced the new forms, the popularity began to spread like wildfire. People took notice, and a new generation of ATA enthusiasts were soon flocking to schools.
One of those individuals was Cesar Ozuna, a current Grand Master Nominee in Songahm, who was a business professional and ultimate athlete eager to help the ATA founder spread the word of this new martial art in South America. It was then that the STF, or Songahm Taekwondo Federation, was created.
Ozuna explains how much his relationship with the ATA Founder continues to impact lives: “We have 36 Masters, over 50 5th degrees, over 300 certified instructors, and over 230 schools in Latin America. That is at least 200 people that make their living and support their families teaching Songahm every day.”
This was just the first step in ATA’s global presence—which currently spans 25 different countries and six continents.
A More Youthful Generation
It was an incredible feat for this “American” Taekwondo Association to begin picking up momentum globally, but there was more to what Eternal Grand Master envisioned for the company. He would constantly say that he didn’t want “anyone to not be able to practice martial arts—regardless of age or ability.”
So, in 1986, ATA did something no one had really done in martial arts before: they created a curriculum specifically for children. The Karate for Kids program, designed for students age 7 to 12, was created to teach children martial arts fundamentals. Even more so, it was designed to teach the children life skills that would allow them to be successful throughout their entire lives.
Chief Master Al Dilegge, ATA 8th-degree black belt, was pivotal in the introduction of this program.
“Karate for Kids allowed students to be individuals, outside of team sports. They progress at their own rate and learn valuable traits while also having fun,” he explains.
But ATA’s development of programs for youth didn’t stop there. In 1996, ATA introduced its Tigers program, geared at students age 3 to 6.
ATA Grand Master Nominee, M.K. Lee, is head of ATA’s instruction team and explained why it’s important to get students involved at such a young age.
“These students build character qualities such as respect and courtesy,” says M.K. Lee. “They also learn how to pay attention and focus on small tasks. This prepares them for development in our older age groups and for any type of classroom setting.”
Keep It Growing
In the 1990s, ATA continued to expand and set up shop in Canada and throughout Europe. It was this global expansion that led to the organization’s hosting of the first ever ATA Worlds in Little Rock. The event had previously been called “Grand Nationals” because the competitors came solely from the United States. Now, it was time to open the doors to all Songahm students throughout the world.
During this ATA Worlds, there was another monumental first—Haeung Ung Lee tested for his 9th Degree Black Belt to become ATA’s first Grand Master. He proved his skills with his performance before the assembled organization and, as Allemier explains, “He set precedents on how to go from white belt to Master and then eventually become a Grand Master in Songahm Taekwondo.”
With his new Grand Master status, the ATA founder began to pursue even more ways to serve the students of Songahm. This was accomplished in part thanks to the leadership of his cousin, G.K. Lee, who led to the establishment of the Protech weapons division of ATA.
Grand Master G.K. Lee explains that it’s hard to imagine an ATA tournament or seminar without bo staffs or ssahng jeol bongs (nunchukus). Still, it seemed like a non-traditional move at the time, and initially, some people saw it as too “theatrical” for martial arts. Still, as G.K. Lee explains, “Traditional taekwondo is movement. Everything ATA calls a weapon is an extension of your arms and your body.”
Death and New Life
After the tremendous curriculum development of the 1980s, and the significant global growth in the 1990s, ATA entered a new millennium.
The happiness would soon have a damper when in 2000, Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee passed away after a battle with lung cancer.
Clark recalls, “He was the iron man. I thought he was going to live forever, and when he told me he wasn’t it was a shock to me. It was devastating and humbling at the same time.”
But if one thing was sure of the founder’s legacy, it’s that he didn’t just want the organization to survive. He wanted it to thrive. Members of ATA’s Masters Council—including Clark—rallied to ensure it would do just that.
Clark says, “We were more prepared. I think we knew his vision was going to live on no matter what. He trusted our Masters Council, and we already knew our job was to continue his legacy.”
The first step was nominating the next Grand Master for the organization, and the natural choice was his oldest brother, Soon Ho Lee. After many trials and tests, Soon Ho was elevated to become ATA’s second Grand Master in 2001.
Next Level Programs
The mission was clear: the organization and its leaders were determined to keep the company moving in new directions, and stay on the cutting edge in the industry.
One of the Eternal Grand Master’s strengths was making himself adaptable to new ideas and open to going to new lengths in order to keep instructors and students excited about martial arts. Enter Clark and ATA Master Mike Chat with what would become ATA-Xtreme Martial Arts.
The categories of Xtreme and Creative were new, but still allowed students to take their traditional foundation and use it effectively. Tricks, flips, and kicks were combined with yelling and even music to make for more performance-enhanced martial arts. This helped to generate even more interest in competition and classes.
It didn’t stop there. In 2011, ATA introduced combat weapons sparring. This used Grand Master G.K. Lee’s theory that the weapon is an extension of the body and challenged students to move in and out of different ranges when faced with an opponent.
Though ATA is always looking for the most exciting taekwondo curriculum, it also takes pride in offering a broad spectrum of curriculum to its instructors beyond martial arts. The Kidz’n Power Program and “Agent G” provide invaluable guidance, child safety and anti-bullying measures to ATA students and non-students alike in local communities.
During the addition of these new training programs, ATA also welcomed its third Grand Master, In Ho Lee, another brother of Songahm’s founder.
It was clear that ATA was continuing to move forward, while always keeping the vision of Eternal Grand Master Lee at the forefront of their minds.
A New Home….Kind Of
ATA has proudly called Little Rock its home since 1977. Over the years, it’s made an even greater commitment to the city. In 2009, the H.U. Lee International Gate and Garden was established as a tribute to ATA’s founder. It was a joint effort between the city and ATA to honor the lifelong work Eternal Grand Master Lee was known for in building relationships and impacting lives through martial arts.
In 2016, ATA made an even bigger leap and moved its international headquarters to a new bigger, bolder location in Little Rock. The 43,000 square-foot facility has a massive training room, classrooms and a museum dedicated to the history of Songahm Taekwondo.
Sun C. Lee, chairman of the ATA Board of Directors and widow of the Eternal Grand Master said at the opening, “This is a day of new possibilities. It’s a way to better serve our licensees and show our commitment to Little Rock. This is another day in our organization’s history where I know the founder would be proud.”
The Worldly Celebration
Five decades of steady leadership and talented athletes has led us to now, when ATA officially celebrates its 50th anniversary. When you look at the lineup for this summer’s annual ATA Worlds event, it’s easy to see that the organization is not holding back anything!
From July 8th through the 14th, once again, nearly 20,000 instructors, students and fans of ATA from around the world will descend on Little Rock for a week-long extravaganza that includes training, competition and just plain fun. The city feels the love, too. This is the largest annual convention in Little Rock and generates around $4 million in local revenue.
Some of the highlights on the horizon include the introduction of four new Grand Masters: Michael Caruso, Robert Jager, and the aforementioned M.K. Lee and Cesar Ozuna. This is the first time in ATA history that four individuals will be given the organization’s most prominent title.
They will also inaugurate Grand Master G.K. Lee as the organization’s fourth presiding leader in this role. Grand Master In Ho Lee will hand over his leadership, but agrees that G.K. Lee is the perfect person to fill his shoes: “He is highly well-respected in the industry and has been truly innovative in curriculum development for ATA over the years.”
It was a unanimous decision by the council to choose their next leader.
The 2019 Worlds also has more business training, more World Champion competitors, and the new International Team sparring competition. Bigger is better for this golden anniversary! It may seem amazing that this all fits in a week, but ATA loves it. As Grand Master Soon Ho Lee says, “It’s a family reunion. Our people love being a part of Worlds. There is so much energy you can feel it!”
What the Future Holds
Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee had a popular saying: “Today Not Possible; Tomorrow Possible.” When you look around this vibrant organization, you can see that it is unique. You have “mature” legends who look back on the 50 years and reflect on the epic success, which, it’s fair to say, most of them never saw coming. You also have a new group of licensees—some who never knew the founder—who started their journeys as ATA Tigers or Karate for Kids students and now run their own businesses.
But the vision of the founder ties them all together and keeps them all focused on making a positive difference in world through martial arts.
Since its inception, ATA has changed well over one million lives in classrooms across the globe. The ever-evolving teams of leaders at its headquarters work tirelessly to provide the best training programs, marketing tools, martial arts equipment, billing services and more to its growing number of licensees.
It may be safe to say that, if ATA continues on it’s current path, it will continue to thrive just as its founder wanted. The organization and its supporters will have more than 50 more years under their collective belts – black belts, of course!
Jenny Wolff is the Communications Specialist for ATA’s International Headquarters. She is a 1st degree black belt in Songahm Taekwondo and has been working for the ATA since 2004. She comes from a long line of martial artists as her father, mother and brother all have ATA black belts, too. Additionally, her seven-year-old daughter has started taking classes. For more information on ATA or this article, you may reach her at [email protected].
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