Earning a black belt in karate involves years of hard work, but it’s just the beginning for those who love the art and mean to master it. There are ten levels of black belt one can earn and each one takes yet more years.

R.L. Templeton had never sliced the air with a karate chop until he was 65 years old and showed up for his first lesson at Jessie Thornton United Karate Studios Inc. in Ringgold.

After serving in Korea as a young man with the Army, Templeton returned home and spent 34 years working as a welder for Combustion Engineering. On the side, says his daughter Selina Rylie, he was the community handyman — the person the neighbors called when the toilet was broken, the floorboards came loose or wallpaper needed hanging.

“Dad loves helping people,” says Rylie. “He loves being around people and taking care of them.”

Sadness came into Templeton’s life after he retired and he lost his only son, Lewis. An encounter with karate teacher Jessie Thornton opened a door for Templeton to ease some of his pain by learning a new skill and helping others.

“When I met Dad,” says Thornton, who calls many men in the community Dad, “and found out about his son, I told him, ‘I can’t be Lewis, but I can be your other son.’”

Templeton signed up for lessons and became a regular at Thornton’s studio. He worked his way through the ranks and began teaching both karate and self-defense at the studio, including summer classes for kids.

“Dad loved teaching self-defense,” says Rylie. “We would be eating dinner and he would ask, “Do you know what to do if someone walks up behind you and wraps their arm around your neck?’ Then he would demonstrate for us.”

Each level of black belt involves more work and learning than the level before, says Thornton. It takes a minimum of 3½ years to earn a third-level black belt and a minimum of 5½ years to earn a fifth-level.

But there’s a little extra work at Thornton’s studio. Lettered on the far wall of the studio are these words: “The family that kicks together sticks together. The family that prays together stays together.” Thornton is serious about his faith and incorporates it into his lessons.

In order to earn his fifth-level black belt, not only did Templeton have to demonstrate his skill, he had to memorize passages from the Bible and recite them: Genesis 1:1, Psalm 1, Psalm 23, John 3:16-17 and Philippians 4:13. He also had to recite the Black Belt Oath and the long Student Creed that hangs on the wall of the studio.

Templeton did it all, in spite of the fact that three years ago he was diagnosed with dementia. “When he’s not talking about karate,” says Rylie, “Dad is confused. But with karate, he’s in his element.”

Templeton was awarded his fifth-level black belt on Nov. 27, 2018, then returned to the twice-weekly class he now takes.

These days, a fellow-student, Jennifer Long, picks Templeton up for class. Long started taking lessons at the studio just a year after Templeton did. “He was a mentor and encourager to me,” she says. “He was a trustworthy, Christian man. And he’s 15 years older than me, so if I got discouraged, I would think, ‘if he can do it, I can do it.’”

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Templeton gathered with some other students for a regular class. Warm-up included 25 jumping jacks, 25 sit-ups, push-ups, squats, crunches, and various exercises to limber muscles and joints. Templeton hardly got out of breath. Then came karate practice.

The hardest part of karate at age 86, says Templeton, is “getting up the energy and getting down to the studio.” Once there, the effort seems to disappear.

“Karate keeps you active,” says Templeton. “If you don’t keep active when you’re old, you just want to lay around.”

Part of the Student Creed Templeton had to recite — and that all students recite at the beginning of each class — reads: “I will develop self-discipline in order to bring out the best in myself and others.” R.L. Templeton has certainly done that.

“Dad has been a total blessing to me and everyone at the studio,” says Thornton.

To learn more about Jessie Thornton’s United Karate Studio, visit jessiethorntonunitedkarate.com, call 706-965-8148 or stop by at 61 Tennessee St. in Ringgold.