SILER CITY — It was quite a spectacle when South Eastern Karate Association held its 25th anniversary celebration a dozen years ago. Martial artists, people from all walks of life, came from …
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SILER CITY — It was quite a spectacle when South Eastern Karate Association held its 25th anniversary celebration a dozen years ago. Martial artists, people from all walks of life, came from hundreds of miles away to the modest karate school in downtown Siler City.
All made a pilgrimage for two days of special events and heartfelt tributes honoring a distinguished martial artist and successful business owner who had the audacity to open a karate school in a small Southern town — a school many locals predicted wouldn’t last more than a year.
But what made the event even more unlikely was that the honored guest was Peggy Jolly, a woman who began her martial arts training at a time when the mere idea of an accomplished female master instructor was almost unthinkable. And in case the story didn’t already strain believability, Master Jolly spent most of her career almost undercover, teaching young children in preschool during the day and training martial artists at night.
Consider her karate’s Clark Kent.
Master Jolly holds the rank of 7th Dan in Moo Duk Kwan Tae Kwon Do — in colloquial terms, a seventh-degree black belt in a Korean style of martial arts that incorporates a full range of self-defense techniques, but is probably known best for its emphasis on kicks.
Though a few rogue martial artists inflate their credentials, legitimate seventh-degree black belts like Master Jolly are extremely rare. Working up to that lofty rank takes a bare minimum of three decades, but more commonly a lifetime of study and teaching. Just for comparison, the ninth-degree black belt is the highest awarded in her style of martial arts and that’s largely an honorary rank for a few of the world’s most notable martial artists.
Interestingly enough, one of those ninth-degree black belts is Master Jolly’s own teacher, Grandmaster Young Taek Yu, who served as instructor at the Tae Kwon Do Main School in Seoul, South Korea, and earned the title of Korean Welterweight Champion before bringing his art to the United States in 1972 and opening his own school in Greensboro.
Though it’s been decades since Master Jolly trained actively under Grandmaster Yu, they developed a close relationship over the years and still maintain contact. While driving to his school one afternoon, Grandmaster Yu took a call to discuss his student and former instructor.
What impressed him most, he said, was how hard Master Jolly worked and how she never missed class, even though she was commuting a good distance from Siler City. “She was a student with me for a long time, more than 10 years, and she was the lead instructor for me at one time and an excellent instructor,” he said. “Good with the students and a good guide for young kids. She’s the best martial arts instructor.”
Shattering the glass ceiling
Nobody could have predicted such success back in the mid-70s, when a young Peggy Langley, as she was known then, climbed the stairs to start karate class in a small room above what is now a cafe on a downtown block of West Raleigh Street. Her interest had been sparked a few years earlier, when she saw an instructor on television helping a disabled veteran learn martial arts. But there was no school nearby to try for herself. So, when the late Billy Gray started teaching in Siler City and invited her to train, Peggy immediately took up the challenge.
That first class might have been her last. When Peggy walked into the room, there were no women anywhere — an experience that would define her entire career as a martial artist — so she asked if women could even participate. “Yes,” Gray replied. “If they’re willing to work hard, I’ll teach them.” And that openness made an immediate impression. “He could have pushed me away, but he didn’t,” Master Jolly says looking back. “It was the way he treated me. He treated me with respect and made it very welcoming.”
From the very beginning, she took to martial arts, but faced yet another hurdle when Gray stopped teaching. The only option anywhere to be found was at Young Yu Tae Kwon Do, where Gray had been studying with Grandmaster Yu. It was a long drive and a serious commitment back in the day, but she didn’t give it a second thought.
Well, maybe until she entered a class taught by Master Gary Ward, who, let’s just say, wasn’t as welcoming as her first instructor had been. As she tells the story, Ward was an ex-soldier who ran an intensely physical class and, at that time, didn’t see women as legitimate candidates for black belt. So, he did everything he could to run her off.
Master Ward remembers it differently.
Well, not all that differently.
“I didn’t try to run her off; I really didn’t. Well, per se,” he said before pausing. “It was much rougher and there weren’t many women around in martial arts in those days, very few, and my attitude was still old school because I was still growing myself. But she showed up, kind of shy and bashful. I didn’t try to run her off, but I didn’t encourage her either.”
What gradually changed Master Ward’s mind was what he called Peggy’s “gritty determination” during months of training that he never dialed back just because one of his aspiring students was a woman. It was a hard class, occasionally a rough class, but she kept coming back. After the better part of a year, Master Ward was convinced. “I developed a great deal of admiration and respect for her,” he says about someone who was the first woman he ever recommended for black belt and remains a lifelong friend. “You know, the student learns from the instructor, but the instructor learns from the student, too.
“And I learned a lot from Peggy.”
As Master Jolly described her early encounters with Master Ward — a version that ended up sounding remarkably similar to his — she stopped for a moment and shifted to the relationships she formed over the years with her instructors. Grandmaster Yu. Master Ward. Billy Gray. And Robie Gray, Billy’s brother and another accomplished martial artist who once trained in Korea before returning home to teach briefly in Siler City.
All four, she said, have shaped her life as a martial artist and as a person. When you’re training and fighting and sweating together over the years, sharing exhilarating successes and embarrassing failures, you tend to grow close. “Those bonds you build, you become like family, because you see each other at your worst. You see each other in the most uncomfortable circumstances you could possibly see each other,“ Master Jolly says. “Now, they’re always on your mind.”
Constructing a Lasting Legacy
Becoming a female martial arts instructor has never been an easy path, but when Master Jolly took her first steps, it was almost unthinkable. When she was coming up through the ranks and sparring in tournaments from North Carolina, west to Ohio and north to New York, maybe one out of every 20 contestants was a woman and most of those populated lower belt ranks. Sometimes there weren’t even enough to hold a competition.
Thanks to her example, that has not been the case locally. Master Jolly has trained more than 270 black belts over her 37 years associated South Eastern Karate Association and she estimates that about a quarter of them are women.
Wendy Page Taylor, a fifth-degree black belt now living in Carthage, began training with Master Jolly more than three decades ago and is now the highest ranking woman training in Siler City. As is the case for many adult students, Taylor stopped training a couple of times as family demands shifted over the years, but she kept coming back. In fact, it was attending that 25th anniversary celebration in 2007 that lured her onto the training floor this third time.
Taylor says Master Jolly’s example has been a real inspiration to women who want to study martial arts, especially when black belts are still portrayed in the media almost exclusively as aggressive, young men. “To walk into the school and have her be a woman, and own the school, and be the master instructor was pretty mind blowing,” Taylor said, remembering her first day in class. “She is a person who has been successful, so you knew you could learn karate and become a master instructor. I guess you felt more like you could do this.”
It’s not just women who have been inspired. Students assisting with the 25th anniversary celebration kept bringing more and more chairs onto the training floor to handle the surging number of guests coming to honor Master Jolly. By the time the room was full, there were men and women of all ages and all backgrounds who had been influenced by Master Jolly, much in the same way she had been influenced by her own instructors.
It was a fitting tribute to someone who overcame so many obstacles to become an unlikely master instructor — and someone who continues to have an impact directing that modest school in Siler City, even affecting people who never walked onto the training floor.
“Honestly, I don’t think people realize how much she’s done to bring this whole community together,” says Taylor, who once lived in Pittsboro and now works in Siler City. “There are all kinds of people training here together and learning to help each other and love each other. She’s been a real treasure for this community in her own quiet, dignified way. She’s just an amazing person, and anyone who knows her realizes that.”