Meet The Master

Fred Van Hecke has just been given the highest black belt rank in the martial arts world of taekwondo. He’s 76 and still can break boards with his fist.
Ozaukee Press staff

Fred Van Hecke has endured the blood, sweat and tears of more than a half century of taekwondo training.

Passing grueling tests moved him up the black belt ranks, but his latest honor puts him in rare company.

Van Hecke, of the Town of Grafton, this month was named grand master ninth degree black belt, taekwondo’s highest attainable rank. He is the first person in the state to earn the distinction in International Taekwon-Do Federation-style taekwondo.

This test wasn’t so hard—the ITF called Van Hecke and asked him to come to its headquarters in Broomfield, Colo., for the ceremony.

“I did demonstrate one physical thing,” the 76-year-old said with a laugh. “I was able to walk to pick up my belt and certificate.”

The ninth-degree black belt is primarily based on service and puts Van Hecke in the top 10 of among active masters in the United States.

“We don’t believe this about little Grafton, Wisconsin, sometimes,” he said.

Van Hecke can hardly believe it himself.

“I never thought I’d be a ninth (degree). It was beyond my universe of expectations,” he said.

“On the other hand, there’s more responsibility now.”

Van Hecke has been taking his responsibility seriously since he began training in New York City under Grand Master Son Duk Sung, one of the co-founders of traditional taekwondo in Korea.

Van Hecke had wrestled at Marquette High School and participated in a judo club at Marquette University in the 1960s. After receiving a scholarship to New York University School of Law in 1967, he found Son Duk Sung’s dojang — a martial arts training hall — and was hooked after a couple of sessions of studying under “one of the top two guys on earth,” Van Hecke said.

As he earned his law degree in New York City, his taekwondo training came in handy. He was jumped several times by street thieves, but “never successfully,” Van Hecke said.

He came to Grafton in the 1970s and began practicing criminal law. In 1984, he started the Academy of Martial Arts in Grafton and still runs it today. It’s the longest-operating freestanding taekwondo school in the county.

Balancing his time between being an attorney and running the school while raising a family wasn’t easy.

“My wife (Kathy) is a saint. She should get a ninth degree,” Van Hecke said.

He also traveled, mostly to train and teach in martial arts schools across the globe, including South Korea and Canada. He was excited when the eastern bloc countries opened up and he got to teach in Estonia.

His Grafton school draws students from as far as Wauwatosa, but people from Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula have come for advanced training.

The school goes against some norms.

“This is an atypical school,” Van Hecke said, adding the average life of a martial arts school is 40 months. Van Hecke’s is less than 40 months from turning 40 years old.

Schools usually have one black belt instructor. Van Hecke’s has 15, along with four student instructors with black belts. They have a mix of backgrounds from a dentist to professor to someone who does psychological tests on police officers.

The school does enough business to get by but not enough for Van Hecke to make a living.

“Making money has never been the deal here. We’ve had 2,000 students, and they’ve all been better for it,” Van Hecke said.

Three hundred of those students went on to earn black belts.

Students range in age from about 6 to adult and are about 60% male. Many are home schooled and others are too small for football and aren’t involved in organized sports. They are taught the tenets of taekwondo — courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit.

Van Hecke compared his school’s training to the marshmallow experiment done at Stanford in 1972 that tested young children’s ability to refrain from eating a marshmallow sitting in front of them in exchange for a better reward.

“The will is a muscle,” Van Hecke said.

“What we’re doing with something like this is creating our own little marshmallow experiment.”

Breaking a board with a fist, he said, “is a matter of this” as he pointed to his head.

General Choi Hong Hi, who founded taekwondo in Korea in 1955, was a perfect kinesiologist who understood the body has to align itself and move to build power.

One of the keys in breaking boards is relaxing and then coming through with force, not unlike the basics of hitting a baseball or golf ball.

“We’re using gravity as a major component,” Van Hecke said. “Mass is important but acceleration into the face of a board is critical.”

Van Hecke can still break boards, even though he isn’t as nimble or powerful as he used to be.

“I don’t know many guys who can move as fast as I can at 76,” he said.

He is still able to show the next generation the finer points of his passion, including his three children, who studied at the school.

“Let’s put it this way. You wouldn’t want to mug one of my students,” Van Hecke said.

Someone tried once. Van Hecke’s daughter gave the would-be assailant three broken ribs.

“This can be a devastating self-defense technique. Our system is fundamentally military,” Van Hecke said.

Beyond the five tenets of taekwondo, he hopes his students get two things from their training: work ethic and self-worth.

As students learn the elements, put them together and pass tests on their own, they “start to see a relationship between work and success,” he said.

“If you are an accomplisher of things, you feel better about yourself.”

Van Hecke said the school made it through the pandemic OK. It has seen enrollment upticks through the years thanks to popular culture. Bruce Lee, the “Kung Fu” TV show and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pique children’s interest.

Van Hecke said he has no intentions to retire and he refuses to help plan the celebration his school’s instructors are planning for earning his grand master ninth degree black belt. At least 80 people have committed to come.

Van Hecke remembers once being given the grand master title before he earned it.

He once taught at Korean-funded Amerstate University in Racine. After reading his resume, the school called him grand master, according to its doctrine. Van Hecke was only a master and asked to be addressed as such. They agreed to call him doctor.

“I don’t know any lawyer who calls himself doctor anything,” he said.

Now, he’s a legitimate grand master.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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