9th Degree Black Belt and Dae Sah-Boo Nim of ATA/WTTU/STF
Passing him in the airport one might think "Well there's a nice looking, successful Asian-American businessman." Such impression of the well-heeled, elderly gentleman would be correct but incomplete.
His demeanor is kind, patient and humble. Wisdom of long experience and a keen intellect lay behind his gentle eyes. A quiet dignity exudes from his unimposing figure. Only a well-fitting suit and his easy movements betray a strong, agile body, conditioned for decades to produce the swift, graceful motions of a martial arts master.
To witness him in action would broaden your positive impression considerably: he is at once an inspiring teacher, a charismatic dignitary, a prudent businessman, a good listener, and a prolific martial artist. Grand Master Soon Ho Lee, 9th Degree Black Belt, leads the world's largest martial arts organization, the American Taekwondo Association (ATA), headquartered in Little Rock, Ark., since 1977.
Founded by his late brother - renowned visionary Haeng Ung Lee, the organization and its affiliates currently train over 300,000 students in 17 countries. Now in its 40th year, the ATA has produced more than 132,000 Black Belts, 4,500 certified instructors, and 3,000 licensed facilities worldwide. Grand Master Soon Ho Lee has himself trained and titled over 140 Masters of Songahm Taekwondo, 48 Senior Masters and 10 Chief Masters. His leadership is supported and enhanced by advisement of the ATA Masters’ Council, a group of industry pioneers and successful businessmen, established for the purpose by Eternal Grand Master prior to his passing.
Reaching the pinnacle of authority was no easy task, but Grand Master Soon Ho Lee met the arduous requirements established by his predecessor with determined grace. Since 2001 he has lead the organization with an open mind and steady hand, overseeing impressive business achievements, industry innovations, and sustained growth of his Songahm family. When Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee passed away in 2000, he left a thriving martial arts system and expanding organization. He had paved the way for hundreds of thousands, touching lives wherever he went and leaving a great legacy. Grand Master shares his late brother’s passionate vision of sharing the benefits of Songahm Taekwondo training with all people.
Grand Master Soon Ho Lee greets the challenges of his tremendous responsibilities with enthusiasm, optimism and diligence. He takes his role as the embodiment of Songahm Taekwondo’s noble virtues to heart, and understands that he is the ultimate role model for all ATA students, teachers, judges and competitors – everyone in the Songahm family. As he must be, Grand Master is living proof that the Songahm “life skills” and training system are truly effective. Maintaining the ability to execute, with pinpoint precision, the finest points of every stance, block, jump, strike, and kick in the system requires him to live with great self-control, self-discipline and self-denial. His travel itinerary is grueling by any standard, appearing at tournaments, rank testings, and training camps throughout the year. Grand Master endures the wear of travel to help grow his Songahm family, and to personally engage, educate and motivate members to reach further and achieve more.
"As long as we know there is always more to learn, anything is possible," Grand Master Soon Ho Lee is fond of saying. A humble, determined spirit is typical of highly accomplished martial artists, who acknowledge the quest for self-improvement is worthwhile but without end. His humility is genuine, despite the vast expertise and prolific mastership of skills gained through a lifetime of study and hard work.
At age 70, he maintains top physical condition through regular exercise, traditional Taekwondo training, balanced nutrition, preventive health care, and avoidance of bad habits - though he wasn’t always so health-conscious. Grand Master admits that as a young man, he even smoked cigarettes for a short time. As martial artists and other athletes quickly learn, so did tough, young Soon Ho find the tobacco vice unsustainable –a hindrance to his goals and life, so he set it aside. "A leader must be able to change himself before he can hope to change others," says Grand Master Soon Ho Lee. This principle is central to Songahm philosophy, reflected even in the requirements of the ATA instructor certification program and in the teaching methods they learn to use in the classroom: leading by example.
Grand Master Soon Ho Lee relaxes by practicing the ancient Korean art of calligraphy. He is quite an accomplished artist in the medium as well as in poetry; his timeless works are treasures of the organization. His personal seal, which endorses every ATA member’s rank certificate from White Belt to Chief Master Instructor, was carefully designed many years ago. He and Eternal Grand Master created their seals and named the Songahm forms after their own self-images: Haeng Ung was represented by Songahm, "Pine Tree and Rock," while Soon Ho was, prophetically it seems, represented by Shim Jun (the name of Songahm Taekwondo's 1st Degree Black Belt form), "Plant Seeds for the Future."
The soft-spoken, even-tempered leader, who now leads a veritable army of paying customers to jump, shout and take up (foam) arms for fitness and safety, faced long odds against achieving greatness at his birth in 1939. Born in exile into poverty, hunger, bitter cold and constant danger, Soon Ho Lee and his family faced many trials that seem to have shaped their destinies and those around them - including his current massive following in the ATA.
During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Lee family lived in Manchuria, China, only a slightly less hostile place for the foreign refugees. Fellow expatriates repaying the generosity and kindness shown in their homeland helped them along. Soon Ho was the third of eight children and the second boy born in China (Haeng Ung was born there in 1936). After World War II, the Lee family returned to their homeland, where his remaining siblings were born. By the mid-1950's, the teenage boys were training and teaching in the martial arts. While he clearly recalls the difficulties they survived growing up abroad and in his own war-torn nation, Grand Master downplays the significance of those obstacles, fondly citing the unity of his family as his greatest influence during those hazardous formative years. Unity is a steadfast family tradition in his current home as well. Grand Master is currently married to Mrs. Sukey Lee, and has a son, Aaron, a 5th Degree Black Belt, and a daughter, Suzette, a 2nd Degree Black Belt, both of whom now run his school in Panama City, Fla.
Accepting His Destiny and the Nine Steps to Becoming the Grand Master
Though he realized it was his destiny to accept the position of Grand Master of Songahm Taekwondo, the news of his older brother's illness hurt him deeply. Grand Master Soon Ho Lee explains, 'My brother was my hero, my mentor, and my best friend. He was the Grand Master! He could not be ill, he surely could not die! My brother was like Superman to me and I knew he always trained hard, ate right and took great care of himself. We had traveled so many miles together and still had so many miles to go."
As with the opening of his first school in Milwaukee, he soon found himself promising his brother that the vision would continue. He would leave his home in Panama City, Florida and dedicate his life even further to keeping the ATA and the worldwide Songahm family moving forward.
He would now have to complete the same Nine Steps his brother had some 10 years earlier when he became the first Grand Master of Songahm Taekwondo.
The following includes the Nine Steps Grand Master Soon Ho Lee completed and a short explanation of each step:
- Step 1: The Grand Master notifies the Master's
Council in writing that he will be stepping down from the duties and
responsibilities of Grand Master. In his letter, the Grand Master would
make a recommendation for his successor. If the Grand Master cannot
decide on a nomination, the nomination would come from the Master's
**In instances of death, illness, or in the cases of expulsion, the three highest-ranking members of the Master's Council would perform all duties, providing that they are not the nominees for Grand Master.
- Step 2: The Master's Council must approve the
candidate 100%. Once approved, the Grand Master candidate would be asked
to have a complete physical. Not only must he or she pass, but also
their fitness level should place them in the top ten percent of their
age group. Once a candidate is approved and has passed the physical,
step two would be complete.
- Step 3: As Grand Master H.U. Lee did, the new
nominee must circulate a petition signed by 300,000 students, or sixty
percent of the current Songahm membership. Every Songahm Master,
Instructor, School Owner, Club Owner, and Member would participate in
the process of gathering signatures. A complete list of all signatures
would become a part of the permanent record, and would be displayed with
the first letters so that all will know that step three has been
- Step 4: As Grand Master H.U. Lee did, the candidate
will fast for twenty-one days during the preparation. Preparation will
be broken down into four training quarters: fasting three days the first
quarter, six days the second quarter, nine days the third quarter, and
three days the fourth quarter just before the Grand Master ceremony.
Each quarter, fasting will be documented and confirmed by a member of
the Master's Council. These documents will be placed in the museum as
each quarter is completed.
- Step 5: The Grand Master candidate must spend three
days at the same Korean temple as Grand Master H.U. Lee did prior to his
Grand Mastership. The candidate must participate in the same rituals and
meditations, with silence as the goal for the nominee during these three
days. A Master's Council member will be there to document the first
words spoken by the future Grand Master. These first words will be
spoken from the same special rock used by Grand Master H.U. Lee at the
Palace of the Warriors. It was on this rock, selected by Grand Master
H.U. Lee, that he and most Senior Masters made a personal pledge of
dedication, sacrifice, and focus on Songahm's future.
- Step 6: To ensure a "Strong Body and Clear Mind"
the candidate will train daily, both physically and mentally. In
addition, the candidate will train one day as a student with each member
of the Master's Council. The candidate must be able to fully appreciate
the role of both student and instructor. Not only will the candidate
gain new knowledge, but he or she will help create a tremendous force of
synergy to help ensure a clear path for the leaders of the organization.
The Council will train all future Masters in the name of Grand Master
Daily training will include the following: The candidate must master a Pro-Tech weapon of his/her choice. The selection will be announced and documented by the Master's Council with a letter to be displayed at the museum. This weapon must become a part of his/her daily routine.
The candidate must learn and practice the ninth degree form that Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee performed for his own testing and promotion to Grand Master. The form is to be practiced in its entirety ninety-nine times throughout the year.
- Step 7: The candidate must perform the ninth degree
Grand Master form at Songahm World Championships. He/she must also
perform a personal demonstration with the weapon of choice and breaking.
The demonstration must be performed with great ceremony and humility.
- Step 8: The previous Grand Master or the complete
Master's Council shall preside over the coronation and testing of the
new Grand Master. Part of the ceremony will include the reading of all
previous Grand Master names, and years holding the position, even if in
the future there are hundreds of names in a thousand years. This list
should start with Grand Master H.U. Lee. We cannot truly see the future
without complete and accurate knowledge of the past.
- Step 9: The presentation of the new Grand Master in
his new black uniform by the current Grand Master, or by the complete
Master's Council to the family and students of Songahm shall take place
at the beginning of the Master's ceremony.
From the Beginning
From the beginning, Haeng Ung was the most entrepreneurial of the family, having found that the martial arts were not only for fitness and self-defense, but could offer a viable teaching career as well. By the mid-1950's, he had opened his first school in Yong Dung Po and trained fellow Republic of Korea army members in traditional Taekwondo. Soon Ho visited and trained at the school frequently. He then opened another school near a U.S. Air Force Base near Seoul, and later trained U.S. service members on the Base, where in 1961 he met Richard Reed, the military officer who lead him to America and eventually, the founding of the ATA.
After opening a Taekwondo school in Omaha, Neb., in 1962 and beginning the ATA concept in 1965, Haeng Ung realized he needed his family by his side to launch his vision in America. In 1969 the American Taekwondo Association was founded by Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee, and his call was answered when Grand Master Soon Ho Lee joined him stateside. From that moment, unbeknownst to Soon Ho, his older brother had begun grooming him as worthy successor to the empire they were forging together.
Already a talented martial artist, Soon Ho was pushed by Haeng Ung to become even better - faster, stronger, and more accurate with the traditional techniques. Haeng Ung helped Soon Ho see his vision, too, and inspired him to open his first Taekwondo school in Milwaukee, Wis., in the year of his arrival, which later expanded to three schools.
Soon Ho became a naturalized American citizen in 1976. Two years later, he moved his family to Panama City, Fla., to build a state of the art training facility and fitness center, where eventually instructors from around the world would come to train. For many years this facility was the center point of ATA growth in the southeastern United States and is still thriving today. The success of his Florida enterprise allowed Grand Master to travel extensively, teaching students and training fellow instructors in the superior ATA ways.
With assistance from Grand Master Soon Ho Lee, Chief Master Robert Allemier, Chief Master William Clark, Chief Master In Ho Lee, Chief Master G.K. Lee, and Chief Master M.K. Lee, Eternal Grand Master developed the meaningful, practical Songahm ("Pine Tree and Rock") style of Taekwondo, organizing traditional techniques into a uniform curriculum that leads students through successive ranks, from White Belt all the way to Grand Master, with appropriately challenging material that develops the body and mind. The first three forms of the system were introduced in 1983. (Songahm's 17 traditional forms were completed in 1990.) A growing roster of enthusiastic followers worked tirelessly to proliferate the Songahm style, with apparent success. As they confronted obstacles and overcame them, Soon Ho Lee was developing the patient mindset and leadership skills that would be needed later as the Grand Master.
The 1980's were trailblazing days of progress for the ATA and Songahm system. During this period, the BeeRyongBong, "Staff of the Flying Dragon," was brought from an idea through many design stages to a complex, sanctified production process. The Staff of the Grand Master, as it is also known, is one of the organization’s most prized artifacts. The legend of the staff is well known, but the fantastic story of its creation has yet to be told. The two brothers worked with Senior Master Emory Morris for several years to select traditional images for the beautiful ceremonial staff, which is used exclusively by Grand Master to anoint new Masters of Songahm Taekwondo. The staff was presented to Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee at his inauguration as Grand Master in 1990, and was passed to Grand Master Soon Ho Lee at his inauguration in 2001.
When Haeng Ung ascended to the highest rank of 9th Degree Black Belt and was anointed with the title of Grand Master of Songahm Taekwondo in 1990, Soon Ho remained one of his closest advisors. The next decade saw explosive growth for the ATA and its international affiliates, as business models proved effective, marketing strategies began to work, and the Songahm system took root and blossomed around the country. Greeted with the shocking news of his brother's terminal illness in 2000, Soon Ho reluctantly accepted the nomination for Grand Master, moved from Florida to Arkansas, and began training to complete the stringent requirements. In October of the same year, Eternal Grand Master H.U. Lee lost his hard-fought battle with cancer and passed away in Little Rock, Ark.
The nine-month preparation to ascend to the Grand Master position spanned two continents and required rigorous daily practice, made harder by the grief he was suffering over the loss of his "Superman." Each momentous stage of the journey contains a philosophical significance. Mastery of a complex form and special weapon; long periods of fasting in solitude, silence and meditation at ancient, sacred locations; and petitions of support (signed by a solid majority of the organization's membership) were more elements of the travail, proscribed and completed by the first Grand Master. Starting with himself and for each successive leader of the organization, the candidate for Grand Master must prove his worthiness to serve the role by passing a series of demanding trials. Soon Ho Lee completed them all with determination and dignity, in tribute to his heroic late brother and with somber allegiance to the close-knit and growing Songahm family.
At the 2001 Songahm World Championships in Little Rock, Ark., Soon Ho Lee fulfilled all requirements in spectacular form, ascended to the rank of 9th Degree Black Belt, and was anointed by peers and the organization's majority as the new Grand Master of Songahm Taekwondo. Haeng Ung Lee was posthumously elevated to the honorary rank of 10th Degree Black Belt and awarded the unique title of Eternal Grand Master.
Since those tough times, Grand Master Soon Ho Lee has ruled fairly and firmly on all matters related to Songahm Taekwondo. Like his brother, Grand Master possesses the uncanny ability to bring out the best in people, to inspire confidence in his patient judgment, to live the exemplary life, and to balance progress with traditions in ways that empower the organization of schools and army of followers he represents. He urges the thousands of well-qualified instructors of Songahm Taekwondo to share their knowledge, to find and bring out the best in their students, to provide the best quality martial arts training experience, and to sacrifice, if necessary, to model virtuous lifestyles.
The stalwart leadership of Grand Master Soon Ho Lee virtually ensures that Songahm Taekwondo will remain the dominant and fastest growing system in the world, with its practical blending of life skills and serious Taekwondo training through a uniform teaching system. "The market for Traditional Taekwondo is enduring," says Grand Master Soon Ho Lee, "while the Olympic and Professional Martial Arts are very limited in accessibility and usefulness. Besides, Songahm Taekwondo is the best, and we're determined to share it with everyone, everywhere."
Grand Master Soon Ho Lee attributes the on-going success of Songahm Taekwondo and the American Taekwondo Association to several factors. He commends the organization’s business leadership for continually practicing the strong, responsible ethics it was founded upon. He cites the unity of the Songahm family as an important factor as well, unity created in part by the ATA's instructor training and certification process, its widespread tournament system, its centralized processing model, and diverse support systems provided by headquarters. The enthusiastic leaders who teach and practice Songahm are also responsible for its success. Grand Master holds great reverence for the Songahm system itself, with its rich history and imagery, profound philosophy, the teaching methods that so effectively train body and mind at once, and the ingenious nature of the system's structure and design.
Realizing the ATA's mission of spreading Taekwondo to every shore will take perseverance, integrity, self-control and loyalty - virtues the Grand Master exhibits so naturally. When H. U. Lee entrusted the future care of his life's work - the Songahm system and the Songahm family - to his brother, his helper and his lifelong confidant, he was paying Soon Ho the ultimate compliment. Grand Master strives daily to be worthy of it, but those who know him agree unanimously, without reservation: Grand Master Soon Ho Lee is right where he needs to be.