From ATA World Volume 19, Number 3 Fall
Eternal Grand Master H. U. Lee left a life of poverty and struggle in his native Korea to pursue the American Dream. However, his dream was different than others. Lee came to the United States 50 years ago to share his knowledge and love of Taekwondo, believing that people can improve their lives through martial arts.
Lee moved to the United States with the encouragement of Richard Reed, an American serviceman he trained in Taekwondo in Korea. He became an instructor and Reed’s partner at a martial arts school in Omaha, Neb., starting on his dream to bring martial arts to the world, planting the seed that would become Songahm Taekwondo.
Of course it wasn’t easy. Lee didn’t speak much English, and there were many cultural barriers to overcome. He was even deported, not long after arriving in America. But he didn’t give up. With determination and guts, Lee returned to the United States to continue pursuing his goals, relying on his mantra for encouragement: “Today not possible. Tomorrow possible.”
“His vision was to spread the art of Taekwondo all over the world, and he knew that America was the up-and-coming super power. Little did he know how big the United States was,” says his youngest son, Lucas Taekwon Lee, vice president of media development and communications for the ATA. “But he had a mission to change the world one Black Belt at a time.”
In 1969, H. U. Lee created the American Taekwondo Association and sparked the growth of martial arts schools across the country. Based on Lee’s instructional methods, his business support, and the Songahm style of Taekwondo, the ATA grew to include 1 million people on six continents.
“To him, there were no impossibilities,” says Taekwon Lee. “He believed that in Taekwondo, you can accomplish anything. With perseverance, self-control, and self-discipline, anything is possible.”
H. U. Lee certainly didn’t rest on his laurels, waiting for his dream to happen for him. He constantly trained and tested himself. He fasted for 21 days and meditated in the mountains of Korea before earning the first 9th Degree Black Belt in Songahm Taekwondo, becoming Grand Master in 1990.
Throughout the years, H. U. Lee constantly demonstrated that he was ATA Strong by practicing what he preached, by being accessible to students, instructors, and school owners, and by never giving up. Sadly, he died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 64.
“He sacrificed for his philosophy, and that sacrifice paved the way for so many things today,” says his son. “It’s very clear that everybody believes in his vision and in what he was doing. He embodied the saying, ‘Everybody gets knocked down. The strong get back up.’”
Illustration by Eric Wight, ericwight.com; digital color by Becca Kline, becsketch.com; art direction by Jeff Nodelman, 3rd Degree Black Belt.