Soldotna woman, 75, earns black belt

Soldotna woman, 75, earns black belt

The test began and ended with a moment of meditative silence, infused with intense focus and anticipation. Six Tang Soo Do practitioners stood at attention facing the west windows of the small studio in Soldotna, preparing to spend the next ninety minutes grilling one woman on her knowledge of the art.

Arlene Franke has been practicing Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art incorporating elements of kung fu, karate and several other martial arts, for five years. On Friday, she successfully earned her first-degree black belt in the discipline.

She’s also 75 years old.

The test required a long written exam, an essay and an extensive performance of techniques, including long hand and foot sequences and an open spar. The examiners, twins Cierra and Mika Brassfield, guided Franke through the test, barking commands in Korean and offering opposition for her to spar. They began the exam with a set of jumping jacks and other exercises designed to get her ready for the test. Calling commands to her, Cierra and Mika affectionately addressed her as “Grandma.”

“With her, it’s ‘respect’ with an exclamation point and a smiley-face emoji,” said Bud Draper, owner of Soldotna Martial Arts, who has taught Franke for the last five years. “We just love her to death.”

Franke said she was first introduced to Tang Soo Do through her daughter and grandsons, all of whom studied with Draper and who hold black belts themselves. Her grandsons would report on the martial arts classes with excitement, and she attended most of their belt tests. Her curiosity was piqued enough to try it herself.

Tang Soo Do requires more than just developing the physical fitness to perform it. Draper teaches many of the commands in Korean, and the punches and kicks come in memorized sequences. The accomplishment has been a test for her memory, Franke said.

“There’s a lot to remember, but it’s good for me,” she said.

At the test Friday, about 10 people packed into the small observing space, alternately laughing and watching anxiously as Franke progressed through the stages of the test. Midway through the test, as she dodged and circled carefully around Cierra Brassfield while free sparring, some of the observers held their breath while others called encouragement. When she deftly wielded a bo staff, her husband Charles Franke chuckled. His son, Terry Franke, teased him to watch out.

“A broomstick, it could be anything,” Charles answered.

Arlene’s family has supported her throughout her pursuit of Tang Soo Do, though they never expected her to rise all the way to black belt status.

“I expected her to go to orange belt and then stop after that,” said her daughter Shari Franke, who holds a black belt herself.

Aspects of Tang Soo Do are difficult for her mom, Shari said. But Arlene keeps pushing through, and she intends to continue on practicing after she has earned her black belt, she said. Black belt holders are still learners, not masters, but they take on more instruction responsibility and earn respect.

Arlene said this is her first venture into a sport. She grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, the youngest of five siblings, and had polio when she was young. Married shortly after graduating high school, she raised five children.

“My idea of participating in sports was sitting on the sidelines at my children’s a grandchildren’s various sporting events cheering them on,” she wrote in her essay as part of her black belt exam.

But she rose to the occasion, winter and summer, driving in the dark to get to the studio, walking miles on the treadmill to keep in shape. Last year, she and her son Terry took up the 1,000 mile challenge — walking 1,000 miles in the course of a year — and she overachieved significantly, he said. She’s always been tenacious, working steadily toward her goals, he said.

“She’s like a river flowing against rocks,” Terry said. “She wears them down eventually.”

Arlene’s a constant in the studio as well. Draper teaches students of all ages, and they are inspired by her perseverance, he said. He does have to account for her age a little when pairing up sparring partners, he said.

“He always tells them, ‘Be careful of Grandma,’” Arlene said.

Seeing her consistently arrive to train is motivating, said Heather Fritsche, a fellow student at Draper’s studio. Fritsche, who formerly studied taekwondo when she lived in Texas and started Tang Soo Do when she moved to Alaska, came to watch Arlene take her test Friday in support.

“I started martial arts in my 30s, and it was hard,” she said. “To start in my 70s? … I can’t imagine.”

At the end of the test, the three masters proctoring the exam congratulated Arlene on doing so well. The World Tang Soo Do regional director for Alaska, Roy Uttech, said he was very impressed with how thoroughly she knew the material and hadn’t hestitated throughout the exam.

“Your performance in this test, regardless of your age, was excellent,” he said.

Draper noted that Arlene’s accomplishment added another landmark for her family as well — her grandsons earned their black belts first, then Shari, and now so has Arlene.

“We’re talking about three generations of Tang Soo Do black belts now, but the order was switched,” he said.

At the end of the test, the six practitioners and those in the observing area once again stood in silence to meditate. They turned again and as a final note recited the tenets of Tang Soo Do with one voice: “integrity, concentration, perseverance, respect and obedience, self-control, humility and indomitable spirit.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at

More in News

Sockeye salmon caught in a set gillnet are dragged up onto the beach at a test site for selective harvest setnet gear in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Board of Fish proposals center on king salmon, east side setnet fishery

Many proposals describe changes to the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan

Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion
Senior Prom King and Queen Dennis Borbon and Lorraine Ashcraft are crowned at the 2023 High Roller Senior Prom at Aspen Creek Senior Living in Kenai, Alaska, on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.
Senior prom crowns king and queen

In brainstorming options, the concept of putting on a prom turned some heads

A photo distributed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows a man who allegedly robbed the Global Credit Union branch located in Anchorage, Sept. 19, 2023. Tyler Ching, 34, was arrested last week on charges related to robberies at the credit union and an Anchorage bank. (Photo courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Alleged bank robber arrested in Cooper Landing

An Anchorage resident was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in… Continue reading

A seal rescued earlier this summer by the Alaska SeaLife Center awaits release on the North Kenai Beach in Kenai, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
2nd harbor seal release draws large crowds

The seals were Pierogi, Pringle and Belle de Fontenay

Attendees search the waters of the Kenai River for sightings of Cook Inlet belugas during Belugas Count! at the Kenai Bluff Overlook in Kenai, Alaska on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Belugas Count! celebrated in Kenai

At a viewing station on Kenai’s bluff overlook, dozens gathered and peered out over the Kenai River during a morning session

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Finance Director Elizabeth Hayes, left, gives a presentation on the school district’s FY23 budget at Soldotna High School on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. Hayes during the KPBSD Board of Education’s Sept. 11, 2023, meetings, debuted first of an informational “Budget 101 Series.” (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
School district warns of looming $13 million deficit in first ‘Budget 101’ presentation

The first installment explored Alaska’s foundation formula

Clockwise from bottom left: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska Division Commander Col. Jeff Palazzini, Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel, Kenai City Manager Terry Eubank and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael Connor participate in a signing ceremony for a project partnership agreement for the Kenai Bluff Stabilization Project at the Kenai Senior Center on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Bluff stabilization agreement signed

The agreement allows the project to go out to bid and construction to begin

Lyndsey Bertoldo, Penny Vadla and Jason Tauriainen participate in a Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education candidate forum at the Soldotna Public Library in Soldotna, Alaska, on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
School board candidates tackle budget deficits, home-schooling, school maintenance

The discussion was the first of two forums featuring KPBSD school board candidates

Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion
Brad Snowden and Julie Crites participate in a Seward City Council candidate forum at the Seward Community Library in Seward on Thursday.
Seward council candidates discuss issues at election forum

Participating in Thursday’s forum were Julie Crites and Brad Snowden

Most Read