Jeffery J. Hughes has been teaching tae kwon do for nearly 40 years to hundreds of people. His Berkshire School of Tae Kwon Do is marking its 30th year in North Adams.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — On a recent Monday night, a dozen children facing off on a blue mat kicked, blocked and punched in stylized combat.
"Take a breath — let it out," ordered their tae kwon do master as he walked between them checking postures and stances, and giving orders in Korean in a low, clear voice.
Jeffrey J. Hughes of Williamstown has been instructing in "the way of the hand and the foot" for nearly four decades, his skills attested to by the row of trophies and citations in his office.
This year marks a milestone with the 30th anniversary of his Berkshire School of Tae Kwon Do, located at the Holiday Inn.
The school is a product of Hughes' passion for tae kwon do, a passion he discovered as a young man far from home.
"I was in the U.S. military service stationed in Korea in 1972. We were peacekeeping and had normal 9-to-5 jobs," said Hughes, now a 5th degree black belt. "One evening, several guys were working out in the gym. A Korean master was giving a class in tae kwon do, and a bunkmate said, 'Let's try that.' My bunkmate soon lost interest and left. I never looked back."
The martial arts enthusiast began his training at the age of 21. After returning to the United State in 1976, he organized and taught the first accredited martial arts program at what was then North Adams State College. Within the next 12 years, he had opened studios in Adams and Pittsfield and began teaching tae kwon do as an accredited physical education course at Williams College.
He decided to concentrate his efforts in one studio and brought Berkshire School of Tae Kwon Do to North Adams.
"Stephen Mix, a 4th degree black belt, has been my righthand man. His work, determination and dedication have made him one of the head instructors at the school," Hughes said.
The South Korean national sport considered by many to be the ultimate self-defense, tae kwon do is the art or way of punching - kicking and feet flying.
"But it is more than physical," Hughes said. "Students develop a sense of ethics and mental discipline as well as an awareness of Asian culture and philosophy."
He finds the most rewarding how his students' characters develop. "I'll run into someone at a store and they turn out to be a student from 20 years ago. An officer in the drug task force is still grateful for what he had experienced in class. And he still can count to 10 in Korean," chuckled Hughes.
Some have been high school valedictorians, some went into the military; one former student is a Navy Seal, another is in the Coast Guard. Hughes is glad that former students feel they can come back to take a class or just stop by to say hello.
Seven-year-old Samantha Rich of Adams is a yellow belt having been promoted from a white belt since she started at the school in July 2010 (tae kwon do has four sections within which practitioners can achieve various colored belts, stripes or degrees to indicate their mastery).
"I like coming," she said. "I have a good teacher, and I'm learning a lot. I'm stronger and more confident."
Her father, sitting on a bench in the studio watching Samantha practice, said, "Samantha has become more disciplined and a better listener."
Laurie Singer of North Adams decided to bring her daughter, Hannah, 10, to build up her self-esteem.
"She loves it. It gives her a chance to shine," said Singer, a teacher at Sullivan School. "Jeff goes by individual ability so she tests at her level. The kids are not competing against each other — they help each other. And now Hannah is better in socializing with her friends and respecting adults."
This night, first-timer Tristan was there to find out if he liked tae kwon do enough to sign up for a six-week course. When he lost focus, watching the other students, Hughes cautioned him. "You've got to pay attention. It's not about what anyone else is doing, just what you are doing."
Raymond Perras, who was at the school with his grandson Izayah, said Hughes is stern but smiles and lets students know that he's not mad. Izayah started at the school in February 2009 when he was 6, and has advanced to the junior rank, Perras said proudly.
Marleigh Briggs, 10, there with her great-grandmother, said she likes learning new things and that sparring is her favorite tae kwon do activity.
"Sparring is pretending you are in a real fight," she explained, glancing at a duffel bag beside her that contained headgear and shin guards. "I used to be a sort of a wimp but now I'm stronger," she said as she flexed her muscles.
Attorney James Sisto and his teenage son are both students in the school.
"My son started in 2001 when he was 6," said Sisto. "A while ago I was looking for a new way to exercise and I thought 'why not tae kwon do, I've always liked martial arts.'"
Sisto has been taking double classes to "get up to speed" since January. His son is to graduate from high school this year and then will pursue a higher education.
"I would like to see him get his black belt before he goes to college," said Sisto, adding, "Always reach to the pinnacle of your profession or sport."
After the horrendous events of Sept. 11 and the economic downturns over the past decade, Hughes feared there would be a drop in the number of students. "But our school population actually increased," he said.
But whatever the number of students in a class, they receive the attention of an instructor who pushes them to achieve a goal.
"In other schools and fitness clubs, students have to be self-motivated," Hughes said.
Then the class was over. The students bowed and said thank you to their instructor: go mop sum ni da.
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My daughter is currently in Mr. Hugh's program and it has taught her a lot about discipline. He expects a lot from his students but also allows them to have fun. I would recommend anyone bringing their child there.
Additionally, all of Mr. Hughs assistants and helpers are wonderful. They work great with the kids and are extremely friendly.
Hi Jeff: Was wondering where you were and what you're up to. Glad you're still pursuing your first love. I remember some of your "weird" diets and the classes (remember rolfing) you took when we worked together...'ya look great for an old man :-)congrats on your anniversary...Fran B