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Jung Lee: Living the American Dream in Shepherdstown

By Staff | Jan 2, 2009

Jung Lee

In 1931 James Truslow Adams first coined the phrase “American Dream” in his book Epic of America. According to Mr. Adams “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

We used to hear a lot about “The American Dream,” though not so much in recent years. However it sure did make a come-back in November when a young African-American man, born to a single mother, who never really knew his father, raised by his grandparents in modest circumstances, was elected 44th President of the United States. Despite your political leanings you have to admit it’s a pretty remarkable story. It’s a story of hope that the American Dream is very much alive and still possible.

Jung Lee was born in Seoul, Korea in 1972. He was the oldest of Sun Gyn Lee and In Suk Hwang’s three children and by his own admission was “small, skinny, shy, and weak.” His parents, the policeman and the stay-at-home mom, were worried. So when Jung was seven his mom enrolled him in a Tae Kwon Do class just to even up the playground. It turned out to be the pivotal point in the little boy’s life; and just like putting a duckling in a pond, he took off with surprising expertise. Jung loved everything about the class: the instructor, the mental and physical discipline and the way martial arts made him feel about himself. He wanted it to go on forever. “I knew I wanted to be a master martial arts instructor when I was seven years old,” he said. “And I wanted to teach in America.”

By the time Jung had graduated from high school and enrolled at Seo Jong University he had earned many awards and belts with ever-increasing numbers. He chuckled and shook his head when I said I thought Black Belt was as high as you could go. The man is an athlete. College was where he learned to play tennis, golf and where he honed his basketball, swimming and weight-lifting skills. For two years Jung studied for a Bachelor’s Degree in physical education and then he went into the Army. Every boy has to serve in the Korean Army, and at this point his physical and mental training was so evident he was assigned as an MP in the prestigious Special Army. “They were looking for bodyguards for our, how would you say it, our White House.” Jung Lee is a modest man who downplays every honor and every achievement. He failed to mention that he is a three-time Korean Martial Arts National Champion. He is much more interested in telling you about the children in his classes. “I tell them to become a better person you have to listen to your parents and elders. You have to listen and respect your teachers. And, you should be humble and not fight.” All the while he teaches his students how to defend themselves, their family and their community. It’s more than interesting, it’s fascinating.

Jung returned to the university after serving in the Army, graduated with his bachelor’s degree and moved to America. His first home was in Los Angeles. From LA he relocated to Virginia to work as a Master martial arts instructor in Alexandria, Leesburg and Fairfax. It was there he met another young man with the same passion for martial arts, Kham Vinaya and the two began seeking the perfect place to open their own studio. “We were looking for a small town where the people were nice and kind and where there was no martial arts studio.”

In 2004 the Jong Hap Mu Sool Universal Harmony of Martial Arts opened in Shepherdstown. Today, Jung and Kham are good friends but no longer business partners. Kham and his wife recently welcomed a baby into their family and the commute from Alexandria to Shepherdstown was taking time better spent with together.

Jong Lee’s life and his work are not one but there is such a synergy it’s difficult to tell you of one and not the other. And when your work is rooted in traditional values of respect, humility, honesty trust and loyalty it should be difficult to separate the two.

Jung has become such a force, such an influence in the lives of so many children, and the influence is reciprocal. His students range in age from 4 to 40, but it’s the young ones that have his heart. In speaking with a parent I learned that Jung has been known to show up with flowers at a sick child’s home. He’s volunteered many hours to teach schoolchildren basic martial arts skills. One of the reasons he has such high praise from parents is that he teaches respect and a criterion for attendance is being a B student. No B, no class. He has his students do good deeds at home and in the community and report back to the class. One parent said “He’s made our home more harmonious.”

One parent played matchmaker because she knew she knew the “perfect girl” for Jung. One small problem – the perfect girl was a young nursing student, Yoon Jung Ko, who lived in New York. It was six months before they could meet, and when they did Jung wasted no time in proving his student’s mom right. Today Jung and Yoon happily live in Inwood making plans.

This nice guy, who speaks a lot better English than I do Korean, loves Shepherdstown and the “kind people.” Sundays are spent in the Winchester Baptist Church. He was brought up a Christian and Winchester Baptist has a large Korean congregation.

“On Sundays I speak Korean.” He said with his trademark smile. His days are packed, but not so packed that he doesn’t seriously think about opening other studios. His life’s work is helping people, young and not so young, discover purpose in their lives, realize their potential, and strengthen their minds and bodies. There’s always time for that. Thirty years ago a martial arts instructor in Korea ignited a spark in a shy, weak, small, skinny boy and helped him realize his dream. Jung Lee is simply paying it forward.

In November 2007 Jung went to the courthouse in Martinsburg and before the court and forty family, friends, students and their parents, was sworn in as an American citizen. Last November he realized another dream – he voted.

– Sue Kennedy is a former public relations executive and Emmy Award winning screenplay writer.