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Art of character

When Herb and Meloney Quady enrolled their 5-year-old daughter, Margo, in the Chip Wright Championship Karate Studio three years ago, they had no idea they were launching a multigenerational family affair.

"We wanted her to emphasize 'focus' because she had trouble with that when she was younger," says Herb.

Margo started with a twice-weekly class at the Medford dojo. She now attends up to six classes a week, and both her enjoyment and progress have become contagious.

After watching Margo blossom, Herb and Meloney enrolled themselves in adult classes. Even little Margo's grandmother is now kicking and blocking, making martial arts a real family activity.

"Soon after she started here, she wanted to do the competitions. She felt confident enough to go (perform) in front of the adults. The goals are attainable in the kids program," says Meloney.

"You learn to defend yourself on the streets," says Margo, explaining one reason for her increased confidence. "I especially like doing kicks."

Self-protection is just one benefit — and maybe not even the most important aspect — for youngsters involved in the martial arts.

Focus, self-esteem, character, discipline, teamwork, respect — the list of benefits that spill over into everyday life is long.

The program at Chip Wright's academy works on the development of the whole child and engages parents and teachers in the process. Most of the children here dream of earning their black belts, and the intermediate-color belts received en route to that goal are awarded only as proof of the child's character development is documented.

"The child has to do well at school and with the family; you can't pass to the next belt without a signed form by the teacher and parents," says Meloney.

"The belts are a carrot, to keep them interested, so you can teach them other things," says Wright, owner and lead instructor at the studio.

The 55-year-old Wright grew up in Gold Hill. He has owned his studio on the banks of Bear Creek since 1983. Although it is billed as a karate studio, karate has become a more generic name for martial arts in the United States and has become hybridized. The system Wright teaches is Chun Kuk Do, a Korean phrase translated as "The Universal Way."

Chun Kuk Do was developed by former world middleweight karate champion and movie actor Chuck Norris, and it incorporates Korean, Japanese and Brazilian techniques.

Wright discusses his life's work with a focused, barely contained exuberance. His dark eyes seem lit from within. He sports week-old stubble and has the squat, muscular physique that reminds you of "¦ Chuck Norris.

This resemblance may account for part of the reason Norris called his student and friend Wright to work as his fight double in movies and in the TV series, "Walker, Texas Ranger" in the 1990s. Martial arts have been the focus of Wright's life since he first received his black belt in 1977.

"Martial arts is more than kicking and fighting," says Wright. "It has so many great things you can take from it."

One of Wright's small students from the late 1980s has earned a third-degree black belt and operates his own studio in Central Point. He's grown into a 6-footer, which comes in handy for commanding attention from small pupils.

Byron Higinbotham resumed his training in college, this time in Tae Kwon Do. He opened his dojo, Higinbotham Studios, in 2003 in a converted hay barn on his family's farm. The discipline he learned in martial arts has translated into a tremendous work ethic. During the growing season, Higinbotham farms from sunrise until 4 p.m., then teaches martial arts.

"Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit," Higinbotham and his apprentices shout in unison at the end of their class. These five tenets of Tae Kwon Do, the national sport of Korea, are woven into both routine and teaching style.

The gravel parking lot is full on a cold, foggy, winter day at dusk. Inside the vaulted, two-story barn, bright lights illuminate the red and blue, interlocking rubber mats and the small, robed figures standing shoulder to shoulder on top of the mats.

Higinbotham beckons to a young boy who has volunteered to demonstrate a move.

"Do you want to try, Michael?" asks Higinbotham.

"Yes," Michael yells and runs forward.

"Go back, Michael," Higinbotham commands.

The next boy who volunteers answers, "Yes, sir!" and the other students yell "Yes, sir" in unison. It's clear from Michael's face that he has just learned a lesson in respect.

Eastern and Western philosophies merge in these classes.

"We are a Bible-based program. I consider this my ministry," Higinbotham explains.

Parents have long struggled for ways to make ancient stories relevant to modern life. Higinbotham believes martial arts can build that bridge.

"I tell a Bible story to show these values. The Old Testament is full of stories of guys at war. Here we're training minds and bodies to be strong. This is an opportunity to prepare ourselves for those future battles," says Higinbotham.

Self-control, in particular, is something Higinbotham emphasizes in his classes.

"Martial arts is a valuable tool that stresses control of emotions. If he gets hit harder than he expected, what does the kid do? Cry? Feel frustrated? You learn to curb it. This is an extremely valuable lesson. It happens in life all the time," says Higinbotham.

"Self-control is a big thing for little boys," says Jay Baymiller, who watches his 6-year-old son, Grady, engage in a grappling match with another white-robed boy. After seven months, Jay and his wife Beth have witnessed tremendous progress.

"It has helped Grady's balance and strength. The physical strength has carried over into other sports. They do core conditioning here," says Beth Baymiller.

In both of these studios, students address teachers as "Mr." or "Mrs." or "sir" or "ma'am." Even Wright refers to his mentor as "Mr. Norris." The martial arts are especially effective at teaching respect.

At Wright's studio, a 4-year-old girl is laughing and skipping. As she reaches the edge of the mat that delineates the practice area from the outside world, she freezes. She bows from the waist then walks slowly toward her classmates, without a peep.

Her silence says it all.

Drew Deems of Central Point exhibits focus as he tests for his next belt in Tae Kwon Do at Higinbotham Martial Arts. - Photo by Jim Craven