CHAPEL HILL - Even when not wearing his "dobok," Misael Aviles Rebollar exudes the quiet presence and equipoise of a martial artist.
Dressed in civilian clothes, the man known to his pupils as Master Misael is calm amid a hive of activity inside the former Yarnell Hoffer building as workers mud fresh drywall and electricians run wires in the bare ceiling.
Once converted, the building on Legion Road will house the Taekwondo and Hapkido Academy of Chapel Hill. The dojang for children and adults has operated near Whole Foods at 1706 E. Franklin St. since 2009.
"I opened when the economy was in trouble. Everyone was like, 'You're not going to make it.' I used to sleep in the school just to save on gas," said Rebollar, who learned martial arts in a Mexico City dojang where instructors would discipline their young pupils by hitting them with wooden switches.
"We don't do that here," Lia Williams interjected.
Williams, an instructor at Rebollar's academy, has drawn on her real estate background to help him navigate Chapel Hill's permitting process. The building, formerly Carolina Closets Plus, has been renovated, rewired and piped - for showers, lockers, and the large studio that soon will be padded with mats.
Rebollar said the project, including buying the Yarnell Hoffer building, will cost him about $650,000. He got some help from Harrington Bank, he said, but as for investment partners, "It's just me."
Williams, a longtime Chapel Hill resident, enrolled her three children in the academy's afterschool program to teach them fitness, discipline and focus. The academy provides pick-up service at most area schools, and the afterschool schedule includes time for homework and study.
Soon, she was drawn into the world of kicks, punches and martial arts herself.
"The kids get a lot out of it, but so do the adults," she said. "It's very positive, very supportive, and it's very much a community."
Rebollar's academy has about 200 students and is now offering two-for-one, month-long trial memberships for $49.99.
In Chapel Hill, the business of martial arts training seems oddly recession-proof.
Goldsmith Kung Fu and Mixed Martial Arts shares a space with Rebollar's school near the Whole Foods, and will also move to the new building once renovations are complete. Student Jeff Teague said he and others at Jason Goldsmith's school have been helping with some of the renovations at the old Yarnell Hoffer building.
"We're excited about getting into the new space," he said. "You want to help out because it's family, community."
After the move, Goldsmith's school will change its name to Tactical Kung Fu and Mixed Martial Arts.
Across town, at the United Tae Kwon Do Academy under Master Barry L. Partridge in Carrboro, instructors Shay Tippens and Mike Carlucci talk about the enthusiasm people in this area have shown for martial arts. The dojang at 102 Brewer Lane was designed as a martial arts studio and has about 7,500 square feet of space. In the past year, Tippens and Carlucci have made piecemeal improvements, such as tiling, painting, and pulling out old carpeting.
Student Karl Gustafson took advantage of a recent spate of unemployment to learn martial arts.
"I've been wanting to do this since I was 10," said the 55-year-old. "I appreciated the culture of discipline and the culture of mentoring. I felt accepted as a mid-lifer starting at the beginning and all along the way. Thankfully, one of their laws is 'Respect your elders.'"
The Chapel Hill/Carrboro area has at least three other taekwondo studios: Kotox Taekwondo, Kim's White Tiger Taekwondo, and Neill's Taekwondo and Fitness. The Chapel Hill Quest Center, a martial arts studio, is on Farrington Road. A karate studio, Ligo Dojo of Budo Karate, recently opened near Chapel Hill North Apartments.
Master Erik Neill said he has been in talks to move Neill's Taekwondo and Fitness to 1706 E. Franklin St. and take over the lease after Rebollar's academy moves.
Rebollar, who said he came to America and 15 years ago and worked low-end jobs to save money, says Chapel Hill has been the ideal place to open a studio.
"It really caught my attention that the people here were really interested in discipline: what was behind the kicking and the punching."
Displayed above the mat at United Tae Kwon Do Academy, words of Henry Ward Beecher carry the same message:
"Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right use of strength."
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published, broadcast or redistributed in any manner.