Quietly, unassumingly, Riley Hawkins has tried to change the world with karate -- one child at a time. And if you ask some of the 7,000 or so people he has taught, it's working.
It started with a few city youths in 1965 and a vision of creating a community. Now, 32 years later, the 53-year-old black belt has not just a community, but an extended family -- a large one because many never left once they experienced Hawkins' distinctive brand of instruction.
First, he grabbed the children's attention with Shorin-Ryu, a style of karate that emphasizes hand techniques. Then, while they learned blocks and hand chops, Hawkins slipped in lessons in discipline, respect and the importance of school.
On the side, he talked to his students, listened to their problems, visited their schools to check on their behavior and even offered his house to the temporarily down and out. Although he no longer teaches children, Hawkins still instructs his adult disciples, who in turn give lessons.
After the beginners and black belts perform at his club's semiannual karate demonstration tonight in Southwest Baltimore, the spotlight will be on the self-effacing Hawkins. Officers with the Police Athletic League centers where Hawkins teaches will give him a trophy for the community-minded ideals in his philosophy of instruction.
"It wasn't really about karate," said James Miller, taught by Hawkins in 1966 and an instructor with Hawkins' club, the Avengers, since 1972. "Karate was a tool to get their interest, but the main thing was to make a better human being."
Hawkins felt strongly about that, so strongly that in his three decades of teaching karate in the city, he has never charged a cent. Instead, he has supported himself with two jobs. He now owns Cap's, a seafood restaurant in the city, and is a security escort at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.
He doesn't make a big deal out of volunteering his time, joking that his students wouldn't stick with the sport if it weren't free. "Most people don't want to pay for pain," he said with a laugh.
The underlying reason for the free instruction, longtime students say, is that Hawkins didn't think it was fair to charge for it. The students couldn't afford it. The majority were unable to buy a uniform, let alone pay for lessons.
So Hawkins brought karate to the children and found ways to get donations. At first, he held classes in a church gym and then at YMCAs and recreation centers across the city. He paid for admissions to tournaments and treated his students to meals. He took them to the pool and the movies.
"He treated them like his own," said Lt. Mary Eilerman, who coordinates the Southwestern District PAL centers where Hawkins now instructs.
Hawkins gave up opportunities to teach for a big salary. Called a top-rated competitor by fellow instructors, he won numerous area tournaments, placed first in his division at the Jhoon Rhee Nationals in 1968, sparred with Chuck Norris and talked to Bruce Lee. His adult students say he could have made it in Hollywood like the karate superstars.
But he preferred to stay in Baltimore. The children needed him. And he presided over the Avengers as child after child grew up and took an important job. Among them is Sheila Dixon, a 4th District city councilwoman who studied with Hawkins as a teen-ager.
Hawkins said he is happy just to instill a sense of responsibility and love in a child.
"I'm hoping that things in the city and all over the country are going to change," he said. "I've seen so much death, so much harm done to others. It just hurts you so bad."
"Riley has made it a quest of his," said Maurice Bartee, who started lessons with Hawkins at age 13 in 1965 and is now an instructor with the Avengers. "This man has lost jobs making sure the kids had somebody to talk to. I'll always be indebted to him."
The Avengers karate demonstration will be at 7 p.m. today at the Mount St. Joseph High School gymnasium, 4403 Frederick Ave. Information: 410-396-2488.
Pub Date: 6/28/97