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Jhoon Rhee, who helped popularize taekwondo in the United States, dies at 86

Jhoon Rhee in 2002, during his morning workout at home in McLean, Va. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, a Korean-born martial artist who settled in Washington and helped popularize taekwondo in the United States, preaching a philosophy of “truth, beauty and love” while teaching 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 Mr. 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.

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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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 1960 movie “Exodus.”

Mr. 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 21st and K streets NW.

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

By the 1970s, he had begun broadcasting a television commercial that made him a household name locally.

“When you take Jhoon Rhee self-defense,” the ad’s earworm jingle began, “then you too can say: Nobody bothers me! Nobody bothers me!” The commercial concluded with a wink from Mr. Rhee’s 5-year-old son, Chun Rhee, who declared, “Nobody bothers me, either!” (The song was written by Nils Lofgren, who studied at one of Mr. Rhee’s gyms and later became the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and was covered by groups including OK Go.)

Mr. Rhee gained additional exposure through the Congressional Taekwondo Club, which he organized in 1965 after reading a Washington Post report that Rep. James Cleveland (R-N.H.) had been mugged. Mr. Rhee offered the congressman free taekwondo lessons in self-defense and went on to hold open sessions in a Capitol basement two or three times each week.

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

“It helps you get rid of your frustrations,” Jeffords told The Post in 1985. “You go there tired and sometimes depressed, as we get in Congress, but just an hour of working with Jhoon and you feel ready to take on the world.”

Jhoon Goo Rhee (his first name is pronounced June) 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.”

Mr. Rhee 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.

He 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, Tex., for a training program at Gary Air Force Base (later known as Camp Gary).

Mr. Rhee 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 Mr. Rhee, who left to start his own taekwondo academy. “When I opened up my business,” he said later, “I was janitor, instructor, secretary, everything.”

Mr. Rhee wrote several books, led seminars and starred in one martial arts film — “When Taekwondo Strikes,” also known as “The Sting of the Dragon Masters” (1973) — at the suggestion of Lee, whom he met a decade earlier at a competition in California.

“Bruce Lee helped me with my punch, and I helped him with his kick,” Mr. Rhee said.

In the mid-1970s, he became a trainer to Ali, teaching him a right-handed move he dubbed the “Accu-punch” — a move that occurs so fast, Ali said, “you won’t hardly see it.” The punch helped Ali knock out British fighter Richard Dunn in 1976.

Mr. Rhee retired from teaching in 1980 and sold his company several years later, his son said. He soon focused on introducing taekwondo to the former Soviet Union, where Jhoon Rhee-affiliated schools now exist in Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. One of the last remaining Jhoon Rhee schools in the United States, located in Falls Church, Va., is run by his son Chun Rhee.

His first wife, the former Han Soon Hahm, died in 1996. Survivors include his wife of 20 years, the former Theresa Chun of McLean, Va.; four children, Chun Rhee of Falls Church, James Rhee of Clarksville, Md., Joanne Rhee of Seattle and Meme Rhee of Santa Monica, Calif.; one brother; two sisters; and four grandchildren.

Mr. 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 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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