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Jhoon Rhee, who helped popularize taekwondo in the U.S., dies at 86

Jhoon Rhee, who helped popularize taekwondo in the U.S., dies at 86
Among Jhoon Rhee's students were Vice President Joe Biden, actor Chuck Norris and NFL coach George Allen. (Marvin Joseph / Washington Post)

Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee — a Korean-born martial artist who helped popularize taekwondo in the United States, preached a philosophy of “truth, beauty and love” and taught members of Congress how to kick and punch — died April 30 at an assisted-living community in Arlington, Va. He was 86.

The cause was complications of shingles, said his son Chun Rhee. When Rhee was diagnosed with the disease about six years ago, it brought an abrupt end to a training regimen that included 10 sets of 100 push-ups each day.

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At 60, he had performed one of those sets in less than a minute during a House committee hearing on aging. For his 80th birthday, he performed a set in 50 seconds before a crowd of onlookers in the Cannon House Office Building.

Few martial artists were as accomplished as Rhee, a onetime aircraft mechanic in the South Korean military who exchanged fighting tips with fellow martial artist Bruce Lee and boxer Muhammad Ali and taught taekwondo to columnist Jack Anderson, actor Chuck Norris and Washington Redskins coach George Allen.

Rhee “introduced Korean martial arts to the United States,” said Keith D. Yates, president of the American Karate and Tae Kwon Do Organization. “There are people all across the United States who can trace their martial arts heritage back to him.”

A 10th-degree black belt who could break a board with his foot while balancing a glass of Coke on his head, Rhee was responsible for two crucial innovations in taekwondo. He created modern safety equipment for martial artists — foam padding for the head, hands and feet — and devised the martial arts ballet, in which “forms” (movements) are performed to music, such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the theme from the movie “Exodus.”

Rhee was not the first person to establish a professional taekwondo studio in the United States, but he was the first to offer instruction, Yates said. He began teaching classes in 1956, when he arrived in Texas as part of a military training program, and in 1962 established a gym in downtown Washington.

At his professional peak in the mid-1980s, Rhee operated a network of 11 martial arts studios catering to more than 10,000 children and adults. He initially advertised his classes by writing letters to foreign ambassadors in the nation’s capital, promising that he could improve their children’s discipline through the study of taekwondo.

By his count, he trained more than 250 lawmakers, including Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.); Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), the future vice president; and Rep. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.).

Jhoon Goo Rhee was born in Asan, Korea, on Jan. 7, 1932. The country was occupied by Japan until the close of World War II, when traditional martial arts academies — long barred by the occupying forces — began to reopen and teach a new style of fighting. Championed by the Korean military, it became known as taekwondo, “the way of the foot and fist.”

He was attending high school in Seoul when he began learning the new technique, and at first kept the lessons secret from his father, a clerk who believed martial arts was little different from street fighting. Rhee worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Air Force after the Korean War broke out in 1950 and was eventually drafted into the South Korean army. Six years later, he traveled to San Marcos, Texas, for a training program at Gary Air Force Base.

He began teaching informal taekwondo classes and was studying engineering at the University of Texas when he dropped out in 1962 to move to Washington. He had been offered a teaching position at a karate school, at a time when few American martial arts academies distinguished between Japanese karate and Korean taekwondo.

The position was a bust. The school had six students and could not afford to pay Rhee, who left to start his own taekwondo academy. “When I opened up my business,” he said later, “I was janitor, instructor, secretary, everything.”

Rhee said he began practicing taekwondo partly as a way to fend off school bullies, and sometimes recounted a moment in high school when he revealed his abilities by punching a bully in the eye and kicking him in the throat.

But he insisted that the martial art was less a manner of fighting than a way of life, an endeavor that forces its participants to unite their minds and bodies in a singular act of discipline.

“My philosophy is: What is so great about beating people?” he told the Washington Post in 2010. “Most sports only emphasize winning, but I want to transform the training in the gym to human qualities. From endurance to perseverance, timing to punctuality, power to knowledge.”

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Rhee is survived by his wife Theresa Chun, four children and four grandchildren.

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