By Julia-Marie O’Brien, Ph.D.
Originally printed in The Way of Taekwondo, Fall 2002
Copyright 2002, American Taekwondo Association, and OSR&R Corp, used with permission.
My last interview had been with Chief Master Richard Reed amidst the glamorous bustle of the Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas. Now, I find myself on a park bench, gazing at the water, surrounded by nature’s quiet beauty. The settings could not have been more different than the men themselves. Century old oaks lined the perimeter of the waterfront park on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida, limerock railings separating land and sea, and the lazy, lapping waves of the brackish current creates an oasis from the bustling city of more than a million. The interview halts before it began so he can take a call from one of his people, and I have a moment to gaze at the scene.
The calm and gentle surface of the St John’s gives no indication of the strong current and intense activity underneath. It is tender enough to give safe haven to the small waterfowl, yet sturdy and strong enough to support the great barges, which make use of her daily. I’m poignantly reminded of the late Grand Master H. U. Lee, and Songahm Taekwondo as a whole; how looks can be deceiving. To the unknowing onlooker, both the man and the organization may seem similar to other Masters and martial arts groups. Yet, once you look beneath the surface to see what lies below, it becomes clear that there is no comparison. The flicker of a fish breaks the surface and captures my attention, a glimpse of the unseen world. I watch as a shark chases his prey up and down the edge, forcing it upon the ledge, and then devouring it in one seamless motion as it reenters the water.
“I used to fight like that”, was the comment that broke through my thoughts. I turned to see him leaning on the ledge, with a smirk on his face and a glint in his eye. And, I knew at that moment, this would be an interview I’d never forget. Convinced that there was more to the man than ego embodied, I began my quest to learn the story of our third Chief Master, William G. Clark.
William George Townsend Clark II would be more than a mouthful for many a man. However, Eighth Degree Chief Master Bill Clark wears it well. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, the oldest of seven brothers, Master Clark has been a natural leader his entire life. He was athletic in school and excelled in baseball, even playing in a semi-pro league during his senior year of high school. In 1967, he moved to Omaha, Nebraska to work for his Uncle Bob, forevermore changing the course of martial arts history.
In Omaha, Master Clark began his martial arts training and in 1968 met his instructor, mentor, and friend, Songahm founder, the late Grand Master H. U. Lee. Here he also connected with Richard Reed and Robert Allemier, now lifelong friends and Songahm Chief Masters. The bonding and friendship between instructor and students was the foundation upon which the Songahm System was built.
In 1969, then Mr. Soon Ho Lee, came to Omaha, and Chief Master Clark had the opportunity to train with the man who would become Songahm Taekwondo’s second Grand Master.
By 1972 Master Clark was an avid and successful competitor both within the ATA and on the Open tournament circuit. He formed lasting friendships with martial arts greats such as Master Bill ÒSuper footÓ Wallace and Master Joe Corley, organizer of the annual Battle of Atlanta Championships.
In 1971, Master Clark returned to the Jacksonville area to expand Songahm Taekwondo to the South. The pinnacle of his fighting career was in 1976 when Master Clark was Professional Kickboxing Association (PKA) fighter of the year. By this time, he had won the PKA championships and the ATA Grand Nationals. He retired from tournament competition in 1978 at the age of 31 to focus on the growing Songahm organization and his local schools.
While his intense fighting style and brazen attitude may have earned him an appropriate, albeit slightly bawdy, nickname during his PKA and early Taekwondo competition days, the same intensity and passion for Songahm Taekwondo, his business, and school operations have made Chief Master Clark one of the most respected Martial Arts business consultants and entrepreneurs in the country. In the past six months alone, Chief Master Clark has been featured on the cover of Martial Arts Success magazine, was the keynote and highest rated speaker overall at the MAIA (Martial Arts Industry Association) annual convention, and was named one of the Top 10 most influential Martial Arts Professionals byTaekwondo Times. He has been instrumental in program and professional development, bringing prestige and legitimacy to an industry that was once viewed as a sport or a hobby, reserved for men and adolescent boys.
A business consultant friend of mine once commented, If there’s one thing I hate, it’s arrogance without portfolio. Well, Master Clark has the portfolio containing more than three decades of faithful service and innovation within the Martial Arts industry, hundreds of successful instructors, thousands of loyal students and Black Belts.
In addition to his involvement with the martial arts industry at large, Master Clark’s contributions have added richness and texture to the tapestry of Songahm Taekwondo’s history, traditions, curriculum, and lore. As Mr. Jim Wolff, Chief Operating Officer of the American Taekwondo Association put it, there is little he hasn’t touched. His fingerprints are seen throughout the organization. He didn’t invent it all, or create it all, but he brings new a perspective and elements that improve the whole. I am constantly amazed by his capacity to listen, learn, and incorporate new ideas from any source. He is always searching for those hidden gems. I remember once I was in California with Chief Master Clark and Chief Master In Ho Lee. We were at a Martial Arts school that catered to teenagers. The instructor was a young and wild free spirit, and here was Master Clark intently listening and giving this kid his full attention and respect. It was amazing to watch this leader, and innovator in the Martial Arts world, become a student again to listen and learn.
Chief Master Allemier: “I don’t think many people realize the depth of compassion Master Clark has for his friends and students. He was there for me when my son died this past Spring. I’d buried my Chief Masters ring with Justin. At World Championships, Master Clark quietly handed me his, resized to fit me. He told me a Chief Master should have a ring. Please take it. I’ve seen him over the years quietly take care of folks, out of the limelight and never looking for recognition. That’s a side most people never see or hear about.
During the 1970s, Master Clark helped organize and standardize the tournaments, write the original curriculum instructors manual, and the Scrolls of Songahm.
During the 1980s he, as a member of the Masters Council, helped Grand Master H. U. Lee create the new Songahm forms with Masters Allemier and Gee Ho Lee. Chief Master Richard Reed noted, he has a gift for creating forms and patterns. Like a composer who can hear the entire symphony prior to penning a single note, Bill has an amazing capacity for seeing the entire form or demonstration, down to the intricacy of the individual techniques and the complexity of the pattern all at once.
In the 1990s he focused more on program development, helping bring weapons and the Black Belt Club programs to Songahm Taekwondo. This brought greater standardization and structure to the organization.
Now his focus is on Leadership Development and the High Rank Road to Mastership, helping ensure that Grand Master H. U. Lee’s vision is faithfully carried out well into the future.
Today he owns or co-owns more than 30 schools, in five states; he stays connected with lifelong friends both within Songahm Taekwondo and within the martial arts community at large, and continues to be actively involved with the Martial Arts Industry Association (MAIA).
A Conversation with
Chief Master William G. Clark
By Julia-Marie O’Brien, Ph.D.
Originally printed in The Way of Taekwondo, Fall 2002
Copyright 2002, American Taekwondo Association, and OSR&R Corp, used with permission.
You’ve had a long and successful career.
To what would you credit your success?
I’ve been blessed with good examples and mentors. My father and I were close until his death three years ago; Grand Master H. U. Lee showed me how to lead and to balance the sometimes conflicting natures of friendship and leadership, and all of the Masters I’ve have the opportunity to work with over the years, have each taught me something.
Currently, I have an outstanding staff at my headquarters in Jacksonville Florida. I could never do what I do alone. They keep everything running smooth and everyone does his or her part to make it work. Their attention to detail is amazing.
Also, the love and support I receive from my partner in life, Ms. Nancy Poppell brings stability and order to both work and home. I am definitely a better man because of having her in my life.
What stands out as your most memorable
or cherished moments and victories?
Professionally, my greatest success, pleasure, and privilege is to work daily with my team, especially my seniors: Master Sergio Von Schmeling, Mr. David and Master Laura Kowkabany, and Master Gregorio Diaz. It is great to work with such quality instructors who are dedicated to the same goals and vision.
Personally, two highlights immediately stand out. The first was at the ATA Silver anniversary in 1994, when I had the privilege of demonstrating with Master Reed and Grand Master Lee. I performed my “Silver Bullet” long staff form, with fluorescent colors and strobe lights. I choreographed it to the William Tell Overture (Editors note: more commonly known as the theme song from The Lone Ranger.)
I think the crowd really got into the spirit of the music, and I could draw from their excitement.
The next major highlight would be the Chief Masters promotional demonstration with Master Reed and Master In Ho Lee during Grand Master Soon Ho Lee’s inauguration in 2001. I did my form Fire to the Jerry Lee Lewis song, Great Balls of Fire, and the house was rocking! I used a new weapon, the Kwon Dao, which I had trained with many years ago. The excitement was tangible, the crowd was alive, and I loved it.
I saw both of those demonstrations and they were fantastic. I still hear folks talk about them today. They were quite memorable. I’ve seen many demonstrations performed to music in the past, yet you seem always to do your forms to them as well. Performing forms, both weapons and traditional, to music is great. It adds the next level of excitement to the demonstration. The crowd gets into it, and you can feed on that energy and deliver a dynamic performance that exceeds your own expectations. I encourage my students to use music whenever practical. Even when you’re just training alone, the music can keep you going and pumped up.
Also, to be honest, I would have to say that another major moment was the year I won Grand Nationals, PKA fighter of the Year, and the Battle of Atlanta. For a cocky 20-something fighter, That’s a dam good year.
Now, I’ve heard many tales about your early fighting days. Tell the truth, were you just that good?
Well, I was never the fastest kicker or the best technician. In fact, the first time I sparred as a Black Belt at a tournament, I got creamed by a much larger and faster opponent. I knew I had to have a different plan. So, I became the best strategist. I learned to use the ring, know my opponents, and capitalize on every opportunity like that shark; put your prey against the wall and pounce at the right time!
What is your advice to competitors today?
Know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. You can never be something you are not. Use what you have, and know who or what you are up against. Plan and prepare accordingly, then commit to do what it takes to succeed and follow through with your plan. Many individuals are excellent planners, but then fail to follow through and put in the time and sweat and effort required to implement it. Have faith in yourself and confidence in your abilities. don’t doubt, and then learn from challenges and setbacks. Never make the same mistake twice, and you’ll always be learning.
Incidentally, that is also my same advice for succeeding in life outside the ring as well.
What were the differences between ATA
and Open tournament style fighting?
In those days fighting was full contact, and in the open tournaments, you were allowed different moves such as punches to the face and take downs. The forms were different and not standard across style. So you had to remember where you were and what the rules were. Sometimes it was difficult to constantly switch back and forth weekend to weekend.
Today, the ATA and Songahm Taekwondo place the emphasis on safety and the spirit of competition. In the past, some tournament circuits were more concerned with who was the superior fighter and would let individuals slug it out, to get a winner. There is no trace of that in our organization. Tournament sparring is in the spirit of competition and sportsmanship. There are other arenas to demonstrate one’s power and prowess outside of the ring.
How has the Martial Arts community changed
and evolved over the years?
The martial arts used to be a man’s sport. There was wide variation from school to school, state to state, and style to style. Today there are professional conferences and industry associations that help standardize and professionalize the industry. Songahm Taekwondo, in particular, is a single-style standardized organization. With more than a thousand schools and clubs world wide, you can walk into any one and know the rules and procedures, expect courtesy and respect, and know the high level of quality you’ve come to value will be there.
This is made possible by the intense leadership development programs that are available with the Songahm system of training. In addition to the fundamental Taekwondo skills, there is the opportunity for personal growth in other areas. You can learn your basic skills, character education, leadership skills, and instructional skills if you choose to enter the instructors program. This is all incorporated in a life long learning model with a system of mentors, peers, and individuals you are mentoring. Our leaders learn how to be leaders, by leading and being led. And we feel that anyone and everyone can be a leader.
What does it take to be a successful Martial Arts Professional?
Be a martial artist first. You must be a quality martial artist before you can be a quality instructor. Second, focus on being the best, most professional instructor possible. You can be the best marketer, salesman, and businessman in the world, but unless you are the highest quality instructor as well, you have nothing to offer. Thirdly, never, never think you have arrived and can stop learning. The world is constantly changing, so are the needs of your community and students. Keeping your skills sharp and current is not a luxury; it is a necessity.
What did you learn most from the late Grand Master H. U. Lee?
I learned to surround myself with good people who share my vision and excel in various areas. My success in business is due to my people. This is not a one-man show. My instructors and staff are the best and form a team that is far greater than the sum of the parts.
I also learned that if you don’t know something, find out, or find someone who does. Lack of information means lack of growth. We always have to continually be learning and seeking new ideas and areas for improvement.
What was your relationship like with Grand Master H. U. Lee?
He was my instructor, best friend, and mentor. I followed Grand Master, not because I had to or he required it, but because I wanted to. We complemented each other in many ways. I always wanted a bit of freedom and latitude in expression and practice. He gave that to me and I gave him the innovations of the martial arts industry. I was in a unique position with my connections in the martial arts community at large, I could see what was going on out there. I was able to try it out in my schools and see how ideas and concepts could be modified to work into the Songahm System of training.
So I got the freedom I wanted and Grand Master H. U. Lee got the program innovation and information he wanted. What has evolved into our ProTech weapons, Black Belt program, leadership programs, block scheduling, safety equipment rules for example, are all adaptations of other programs. The beauty of the Songahm style is that while other schools might have one or two, we have them all integrated into a single style and training development program which can take you from Tiny Tiger to Master Instructor and Martial Arts Professional.
What do you think the strengths of the ATA
and Songahm Taekwondo are?
First, I would say the focus on traditional values and character. In today’s society, it is increasingly difficult to raise children with traditional family values and strong character. Songahm Taekwondo provides a place to develop the body and the mind, and to support the efforts of parents trying to raise their children in a culture that is working against them.
Second, I would say the variety of programs to meet the individual needs. You don’t have to be a certain type of person to succeed and be valued. Anyone and everyone can start, and our goals are the same: to help them become the best they can be and reach their own personal goals and victories.
Finally, and most important, is the outstanding national staff at ATA headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas. I’m not sure people fully appreciate what all they do. Mr. Jim Wolff, Chief Operating Office, along with Mrs. Sun C. Lee, Chairwoman of the Board; Grand Master Soon Ho Lee; and Chief Master In Ho Lee, president of the ATA, all oversee a staff of more than a hundred individuals who all work behind the scenes to make sure the organization stays at the top of the industry. Senior Masters G. K. Lee, and M. K. Lee, and Masters Al Dilegge, Jay Kohl, and Rick Abair, all dedicate themselves to the running and improvement of Songahm Taekwondo. This worldwide organization is unprecedented in martial arts organizations and completely unmatched in the martial arts community.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Grand Master H.U. Lee was a visionary and could see Songahm Taekwondo evolving 100 years into the future. He laid the foundation for that during the 1990’s when he formed the Masters Council. Grand Master Soon Ho Lee, and Chief Masters Allemier, Reed, In Ho Lee, and myself, with the other council members, have been working together for more than a decade to implement Grand Master H. U. Lee’s vision. When he got sick, he turned over the final control to us, trusting we would be faithful stewards of his original plan. While we all served as advisors to him in life, after his death we became loyal advocates to protect his dream and do our part to see it carried out with integrity. Due to the foundation he laid and his foresight in planning, Songahm Taekwondo will exist a thousand years into the future with a seamless transition from Grand Master to Grand Master; we can be confident that it will be just like it is today, only bigger and better.
I’m often asked why I stay with the organization since I have so many schools. Couldn’t they stand alone? Well, probably. But it’s a matter of loyalty. I’d never rob my students and instructors of the opportunity to be a part of the Songahm System and Songahm Family. Also, I’d never turn my back on my mentor and friend. I believe 110% in Grand Master H. U. Lee’s vision to build a unified martial arts community of all styles, one that develops the whole person, produces leaders of character, professionals in their field, and provides the opportunities to have careers and spend a lifetime doing what we love. Songahm Taekwondo is meeting that goal, and we are constantly looking for ways to continue to improve and advance that vision. there’s no other place in the martial arts community I’d rather be than here.
Over the past three decades, the martial arts community has grown and matured, going through many phases and challenges, emerging stronger, confident, and more balanced. Chief Master Clark’s life mirrors this evolution. He has consistently fought hard for what he believes in, lived life on his terms, constantly looking towards future possibilities rather than dwelling past challenges or resting on past successes. Taking responsibility for past decisions and current outcomes without making excuses or explanations, he knows that tomorrow will bring new choices and opportunities.
Chief Master Clark’s innovations and contributions have helped the ATA and Songahm Taekwondo grow into the vision Grand Master H. U. Lee had so many years ago in Korea and become the premier martial arts community we have today.
Editors Note: I asked him why he selected Memorial Park for the interview. “It’s where I used to train during my competition days, and it reminds me of Benson Park in Omaha. We all used to train there with Grand Master H. U. Lee. I haven’t been here in years, but not much has changed. The trees are larger and there used to be an enormous oak in the center, but it was struck by lightning.
What an appropriate metaphor for change and innovation. Sometimes it’s slow and gradual over time and other times it’s as dramatic as a bolt of lightning.