Jamie Palmer doesn’t answer the question right away.
Instead, he leans back in his black office chair, and his eyes look past me as if the right words can be found somewhere in the distance.
“What do you want your students to walk away with at the end of the day?” is what I’ve asked.
It’s a simple enough question, but the answer takes time. So I wait.
Finally Jamie responds. Slowly. And thoughtfully.
“I want them to grow,” he says. “To get better. To get past fear and reach their potential. I want them to realize they can do something they never thought they could.”
It’s the exactly the response you would expect from the owner of Olathe Karate Academy (OKA), a martial arts school in Olathe, Kan. Really, it’s the response you would expect from any good teacher. One who cares about his students. One who knows teaching a physical activity is a platform for much more.
Then Jamie adds: “But it has to be fun. Kids need to have fun. Adults, too. That’s the reason I stuck with karate all those years – because my instructor, Dan Kennedy, made it fun.”
All those years. Thirty-three of them in all. Jamie, now 41, was just 8 years old when he first walked into a dojo. At the time, there were no dreams of becoming an instructor. No thoughts of one day owning a karate school. Just a kid who thought martial arts might be fun.
“There were six of us who started together,” Jamie remembers. “Two of us made it to blue (belt). One of us made it to green.”
As it turned out, that young green belt had talent. Jamie took to karate, and karate took to him as well. By age 16, he had progressed to the rank of black belt. Then second degree black. Then third.
Somewhere in between karate belts, though, life happened. Jamie graduated from high school. He began studying piano at William Jewel. He chased after a music career that led him to Nashville and then back home again. He finished up his degree. And, at age 23, he found himself working a landscaping job and juggling a handful of piano students on the side.
But there was still karate. For Jamie, there was always karate. Like many martial arts students, his training had become more than an extracurricular activity. It was a lifestyle, woven into the background of his day to day.
Jamie continued to train under Kennedy. He began to teach a few classes for him. And to hear Jamie tell the rest of the story is like reading the summary of a comfortably predictable novel:
“My instructor said, ‘You know, you would be great to open a school.’ So that’s what we did. We opened Olathe Karate Academy together. A year later, I bought him out.”
That was in 1999. This November, OKA will celebrate its 18th anniversary.
Although much has changed since the school’s early days, if you look hard enough, you can still find threads of familiarity. The dojo remains in the same area, nestled in a strip of stores at 151st and Ridgeview. Jamie is still teaching, although the rank behind his name now reads 6th degree black belt and his official title is Kyoshi. Kennedy still runs the same dojo where Jamie started his training. And he makes time to teach the occasional class at OKA.
Still it’s easier to see what has changed than what hasn’t.
Like enrollment. OKA has grown — a lot. It has been slow, Jamie admits, but sure.
“The progression is gradual,” he says. “For a while you have zero students. At one point, a guy I worked for was my only student. But then I remember breaking over 100. That was a big day. Then we broke 200.”
At one time, that number soared as high as 300. Today it hovers right at 240 students. More students means a need for more teachers, and Jamie has answered that need by adding six instructors to OKA’s roster.
“To grow a karate instructor takes years,” he says. “You want there to be consistency in the way the instructors teach. If there’s not consistency, it’s frustrating for students. I know when she teaches, it’s going to be 99 percent the way I would do it.”
The “she” Jamie refers to is Ashleigh Palmer, his wife. “The other 1 percent is better,” she laughs.
Today she’s dressed in a blue gi top with red pants. Her black belt is knotted around her hips. It’s worn and frayed – a nod to her years of martial arts training.
Ashleigh, 32, is another big change around OKA. She and Jamie married in 2006, and the couple now runs the karate school together. They are with each other a lot. Most days, Ashleigh says, that’s a good thing.
“Just like any couple we have good days and bad days,” she says. “But overall we do better together. We just function better together. Everything gets done quicker.”
Ashleigh, once an OKA student, is now a 5th degree black belt. In the martial arts world, she’s known as Renshi. She splits her time at the dojo with teaching karate classes at the Jewish Community Center in Leawood. Back at OKA, she also runs at twice-a-week kickboxing class.
And she’s a mom.
“We have four kids,” she says, smiling. “They’re 8, 5, 3 and 1.” As if on cue, the front door chimes, and a young girl walks in. Her face is a perfect mix of Jamie and Ashleigh.
“Hi Momma,” she says in a voice that matches Ashleigh’s. “Where’s daddy?”
This is Ainsley, the Palmer’s oldest child. She has just finished up the school day and the nanny has dropped her off for afternoon karate classes – and hugs.
This is the Palmer’s routine. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s tough.
“There are days when we get to see them,” Ashleigh says. “Those days are easier. But sometimes we don’t see them all day,”
She pauses for a moment as her eyes line with tears.
“You kind of hope all the work you’re putting in all day will make it worth it,” she says. “As the kids get older they’re able to come to class. That helps.”
Making family time a priority also helps.
“When we’re not at the dojo, we love getting outside,” Ashleigh says. “We go to the park a lot. Black Hoof Park (in Lenexa) is one of our favorites. We play outside when we’re at home. The kids have a trampoline now, so they’re all about that. We go to Urban Air (in Overland Park), go on trail walks, go to the gym.”
The emphasis on family has spread from the Palmer’s personal life to their karate school. At OKA, parents and their children routinely take classes together. This kind of atmosphere was a huge draw for Amber Herr, a mom of two, when she was choosing a karate school.
“I love that this is family owned,” she says, talking to me one afternoon from the OKA lobby. “I love that it’s run by a husband and wife. I believe in supporting small, family-owned businesses because family is important to us. Since Jamie and Ashleigh have children, it gives me confidence that they know how to interact with my children.”
Other parents echo the same sentiments.
Jennifer Perdaris, mom of two, says, “I feel like the instructors here are not overly intense. My kids are having fun, but they’re also learning skills.”
Parents vary on the type of skills they hope karate will bring. But most of them seem to agree they are looking for something more than physical.
Herr says, “I put my kids in karate for flexibility, self-defense and discipline.”
“Discipline” is a word that gets tossed around a lot in martial arts circles, and Jamie agrees that it’s one of the key benefits of training. “Karate does teach discipline,” he says. “It takes lots of practice. And that goes into other areas of life. For instance, when kids play other sports, discipline helps them. They become coachable. They learn how to take instruction and criticism.”
For other children, karate carries even more weight. It’s a safe place. Over the years, Jamie and Ashleigh have worked with hundreds of children. Some of those walk through the dojo doors carrying very difficult life stories.
“We’ve worked with children with special needs,” Jamie says, “children from single parent families, children whose parents are going through divorce and children from foster homes. Sometimes we are the most consistent thing in a kid’s life.”
And that’s how a job teaching karate turns into a service to the community. How a lesson in kata can lead to a conversation about school, responsibility, tough times or even life. It’s a way to make a difference, Jamie says. And this is, perhaps, why he and Ashleigh both have a hard time talking about OKA – “our karate family,” as they call it – without using words like “humbled” and “blessed.”
As OKA heads into its 18th year, Jamie pays homage to both the past and the future. “Looking back over almost two decades of OKA’s growth and development, I am thankful and blessed to have had great support along the way,” he says.
What lies ahead? Well, Jamie sees OKA’s future paved with more of what already is. “I look forward to building on our solid foundation,” he says.
And then he adds, “I want to continue to make a difference in the lives of all my students.”
Of course. Every good instructor does.
Olathe Karate Academy is located at 1461 E. 151st Street in Olathe, Kan. The school, which operates from Monday through Saturday, offers classes for adults and children in the traditional martial arts of Okinawan Kenpo karate, weapons and jujitsu. Currently, OKA is offering a special of two weeks unlimited classes for $29.99. A free uniform is included. Mention this article and receive a $10 discount off the special price.