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 firstname.lastname@example.org.