Boys growing up on the snow-covered slopes of the Green Mountains in Vermont imagine becoming snowboarders like Ross Powers or skiers like Bode Miller, but one seven-year-old boy in an after-school karate program in Londonderry, Vermont dreamed of one day becoming a black belt karate champion. Huzon Grant Alexander grew up in the shadow of his grandfather’s red barn where the letters HGA across the slate roof stood for three generations of Vermonters: his grandfather, his father and the young karate student in Londonderry.
“When I was seven or eight years old, I knew I was definitely going to be a black belt,” Alex says. “More than that, I wanted to own my own karate school, like my teacher.” The teacher was Ed Budd, a black belt tae kwon do master who owned karate schools in New Hampshire, Vermont and Missouri. Budd became an inspiration and a mentor to his young student who admits that he was never the most talented, although he was always the most conscientious and motivated. “I was definitely not a natural, but I worked harder.” On the dojo mats, Alex’s muscular physique springs into a kick and a strike with surprising agility and power. Although Alex was strong, he had to sweat for every move that demanded flexibility. Passion for his sport came before success. He really wanted it. Proficient in most traditional sports, he was offered a soccer scholarship for college, but martial arts captured his imagination and all of his heart.
“My instructor put the time into me,” Alex says. “If it wasn’t for martial arts, I would never have made it.” A kid who always seemed to find trouble, Alex channeled his abundant energy towards becoming the best he could be at tae kwon do. Not that the young pupil wasn’t into things he should not have been, but his goals in karate supplanted everything else. Alex does not feel he missed out on a traditional Vermont boy’s childhood-bicycles, swimming holes, ski slopes and snowball fights-because karate offered so many rewards as he conquered each obstacle on the way to achieving his goal.
He credits sensei Budd as a second father figure, but Alex is quick to say, “I learned so much about life from my [own] father. He’s one of the best heavy equipment operators in southern Vermont.” Alex himself drove a snowplow for many years before his dojo became self-sustaining. From his father, Alex learned about Vermont survival: “Bridges freeze before the roads in winter.” Support came from all the adults in his world. Before he was old enough for a drivers license, Alex’s mother drove him to the after school programs and karate schools where the teenager carefully observed his sensei and learned to become a teacher himself.
Beginning karate classes at age five, Alex started competing in Vermont at age six. He was the only child to earn a black belt out of one of sensei Budd’s after-school programs. In 1992, at the age of ten, Alex became a black belt in tae kwon do, (translated-kick, punch, the way-from the Korean). Since 1997 Alex has earned three hundred first place trophies. As he grew older, Alex trained in diverse martial arts including: judo, kickboxing, free style and full contact. He is currently a sixth degree black belt. By age eleven Alex was traveling with Budd’s Junior National Competition Team. He would leave school in the middle of the day on Friday and go with his teacher to his dojo in New Hampshire where he would take evening classes with adult students. On weekends, Alex lived with his teacher’s family and traveled to competitions all over New England and the midwest. One of five starters on Budd’s Junior National Competition Team, Alex was ranked number one in New England by the age of fifteen. Alex says he is “naturally competitive” and in a short time he moved through the national ranks and began winning national championships. His innovative flying kicks moved him to the top of his sport. In 2002 Alex won the first of six national titles.
Accomplishing his goals in competitive tae kwon do, Alex took on the world of full contact martial arts. Earning international ranking along with multiple broken noses and dislocated shoulders, Alex finally found himself in London, England awaiting his chance to fight for the world title in full contact martial arts. When his opponent withdrew from the competition, Alex returned to Vermont still ranked number two in the world. After fighting across America, Europe and Russia, having to return home without fighting for the world title was not easy.
Back in Londonderry, Alex, at the age of fifteen had taken over for his sensei as the tae kwon do teacher in the Floodbrook Elementary School after-school karate program. The next year the young black belt opened his own dojo above Chittenden Bank in Londonderry‘s Shopping Plaza. Still in high school, Alex had twenty-five students and his first karate school. His mother had to sit at the school so that an adult would be on-site while under-age Alex conducted his classes. As he continued to compete, Alex was building his dream. He began after-school programs in Chester and Bellows Falls, and eventually saved enough money to buy an old laundromat on Route 100 in Londonderry. In the tradition of Vermont bartering, the young entrepreneur created a dojo by trading karate classes for carpentry and plumbing and electrical renovations. Today Alex, his wife and his young son, Tristan live on the property where Alex teaches in two state-of-the-art dojos.
At twenty-eight, Alex is as passionate about teaching as he is about tae kwan do and the martial arts. He has adapted various martial arts into a Self-Defense Training Program for the Vermont State Police; he works with young girls and women teaching them simple escapes from dangerous situations; he teaches adult classes for ages fifteen to fifty-two and he has eighty-five novices in the white, orange and yellow belt levels in his dojo.
Alexander’s Tae Kwon Do in Londonderry and Bellows Falls is proud of a full complement of black belt competitors. Alex says, “The first class is the hardest class.” He takes each new student and offers a one-on-one experience to show that they don’t need to be afraid to begin tae kwon do whatever their age. Each summer he offers a weekend karate camp for adults and a weeklong camp for children.
On this day in the Londonderry dojo, fifteen-year-old, third degree, black belt, Matthew Neronsky-called Mr. Neronsky by the dozen students who bow to him and to sensei Alex-is helping to teach a class of six to ten year olds. Part of the commitment to the Black Belt Club is a willingness to give back to the karate community. Students call the student teachers Mr. or Ms. as a sign of respect for their time and work. Matt, who like sensei Alex began martial arts in an after school program. He says he is interested in teaching and would like to have his own dojo one day. As Alex’s dojo falls under the umbrella organization of sensei Budd, so Matthew’s dojo would be under the jurisdiction of his teacher. Alex sees this pyramid structure as a means of bringing his philosophy of martial arts to the world. He believes that his most important role in the community of southern Vermont as being a mentor and teacher who inspires self-esteem, self- respect, respect for others and motivation in his students. “karate makes better citizens,” Alex says. Already following in his sensei’s footsteps, Matt has become the number one ranked black belt in his age group in New England. Melanie Morse, one of Alex’s adult students, says, “I am impressed that Alex seems to live the values that he teaches. He is not just gifted in his sport, he cares about instilling positive changes in our children.”
A few years ago, sensei Alex in order to inspire his students and to lead by example, returned to competition. “I want them to be better than I am. I set the bar high.” In teaching this life lesson to his students, Alex won the 2008 Double Crown Championship in Men’s Black Belt Forms and Fighting. As sensei, (Japanese for teacher or master), Alex invites friendships with his Black Belt Club. “My instructors befriended me, and I am paying it forward.” As he prepares to go for a run with his Black Belt Club, the students gather around in his office clearly delighted to be in the shadow of this embracing, energetic Karate Kid who has become a man and a mentor.
When Alex teaches a class his passion for his sport and his empathy with his students is evident. As a class of younger students bows seriously to the American and Korean flags, Alex looks up at a little girl who frowns in the front row.
“Smile Bailey,” he says. “Everything is okay.” Alex runs his school with vocal positive reinforcement for all his students: good job, much better, great effort. When one of his students gets the wind knocked out of her, Alex quickly kneels beside her, keeping her calm and raising her arms above her head so that she can breathe. When she recovers, the little girl stands and bows to her opponent. “The word for this week is self-discipline,” Alex explains. As her teacher, Alex shows empathy for the child who is hurting, but in the dojo she is expected to show respect for her peers. “That is why I encouraged her to ‘bow out’ before leaving the ring. I am not just teaching tae kwon do, I am teaching life skills.”
Asked what he believes about children and competition, Alex replies, “Life is competition. I believe that giving respect to children in all things that they attempt results in children having self-respect and respect for others.” Alex hopes his own son, Tristan, will earn a black belt one day, not to be a karate champion like his father, but to acquire life skills that Alex believes grow from the self-discipline learned through participation in the martial arts. “Important life lessons are learned here. We go to tournaments as a team. We support each other. We compete as individuals.” Alex, ranked sixth in the world as a professional middleweight kick boxer, epitomizes success in his sport, but he insists that every effort from every student results in its own success.
Alex is conscious that as a mentor to so many young children, he must be a role model in the community. His Black Belt Club must also be cognizant of its image in the community. He asks them to personify hard work, self-discipline, self-respect and a positive attitude in every aspect of their lives in their schools and community. He expects them to be “good citizens.” Asked about his hopes for the future, Alex says that he would like to create a karate school that “never closes”-a tae kwon do organization that spreads nation-wide and focuses on the foundation that he has built. And his personal dreams? Alex says, “I would like people to know what I’ve done for martial arts. I would like to make a difference in the lives of the children I teach. That is my intent-to make the world better.”
Talking to the children in Alex’s dojo, it is evident that Alex has already made a difference in their lives. “Who is your hero?” They all say, “Master Alexander.”