The martial arts instructor’s life
By Kerigan Butt
Courtesy photo As he approaches his 25th year as an instructor, Rob Kloss currently holds a fifth-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, a sixth-degree black belt in Hapkido, a third-degree black belt in Kukkiwon, taekwondo, and an instructor’s rank in the Scientific Fighting Congress with an unarmed combatives specialty.
By Steven Hoffman
Not every martial arts instructor is humble and self-effacing.
But it takes Landenberg resident Rob Kloss just a few seconds before he admits to this interviewer that he’s not accustomed to being interviewed or having stories written about him. It’s the last day of February and the interview is taking place at the West Grove Fire Company’s Station 32, where Kloss is a volunteer firefighter. He has been a firefighter for the last five years, and ranked among the top ten responders in the fire company last year, but before he mentions that he talks about how the training to become a firefighter helped him overcome his claustrophobia. He has been a martial arts instructor for 24 years and has helped hundreds of men and women transform their lives, but before he talks about that he claims that, if given the opportunity, he will always go for the lazy route.
“I was a fabulous under-achiever until I discovered martial arts,” he says with a laugh.
Kloss grew up in southwest Philadelphia and before he wanted to be a martial arts instructor, before he wanted to be a martial arts student, before he wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, he wanted to be a firefighter.
He grew up a short distance from Engine 40 Ladder 4 in Philadelphia and he would see the fire fighters responding to calls every day and think that, one day, that would be him.
But by the time he graduated from high school, he thought his career opportunities as a firefighter were limited. Instead, he focused his energies on being a drummer, playing in several Philadelphia-area bands. He also took a low-level job in the engineering room at Kajem studios in center city Philadelphia.
He met some of the area’s top rock musicians who were popular at the time, including Cinderella and Tommy Conwell. He once spent forty minutes talking to one of his personal drumming heroes, Scott Rockenfield of the progressive heavy metal band Queensryche. Kloss earned an assistant producer credit on a couple of songs by Teddy Pendergrass.
His own bands scored some showcase opportunities for record companies, but they always seemed to be on the verge of breaking up more than they were on the cusp of breaking out. Kloss says that he was always the least talented member of the band, and in 1993 he set down the drum sticks and didn’t even pick them up for a full decade.
Kloss first started taking karate in 1984. Initially, he was, in his words, “a mediocre student.” His level of motivation, at the time, was mediocre.
“Martial arts wasn’t as warm and fuzzy back then,” he explained. “It was much more militaristic.”
He was training in Tang Soo Do under head instructor Master John Godwin, an accomplished martial artist.
“I was scared to death of him,” Kloss admits. “He was very intense.”
Godwin eventually left to start a martial arts school in Delaware. Lou Marvil took over as head instructor.
One day, Kloss decided to skip his karate class. He received a pointed telephone call from Marvil and within 15 minutes he was in the class and making a point to work hard.
It was around this same time that Kloss realized that, without a career path and a direction in life, he needed the discipline that came with martial arts.
“I realized I desperately needed to be in that karate school,” he explained.
After that, even Kloss would have to admit that he stopped being a mediocre martial arts student and started being an excellent one. He earned his black belt and just eight months after that, he received a call from Godwin, his former instructor. Godwin was opening a second school in Delaware, this one in Hockessin, and he wanted Kloss to be an instructor.
In October of 1990, he took over Godwin’s small Korean Martial Arts Institute in Hockessin. There was only 1,200 square feet of space, and that included the offices and changing rooms. There were two metal poles in the middle of the floor and the ceilings were only eight-feet high. There were just four students in the first week. In preparation for the job, Godwin made Kloss teach every single class at the Newport, Del. school for two full weeks before he could work with the Hockessin students.
While there was much that he did not know as a martial arts instructor back then, he did already know one thing: “If people understand that you care about them, they will stay—and more people will come,” Kloss explained.
The number of students began to multiply and eventually there was a move to a new, larger facility in Hockessin. Godwin expanded the business over the years and there are currently seven studios in the family.
Kloss has fond memories of those early days.
“We had a lot of victories early on,” he explained. “And that’s fuel to your fire.”
There were women who found the strength to leave behind abusive relationships or negative situations.
There were kids who came into their first class too shy to look a person in the eye and left years later as more confident individuals.
There were people with cerebral palsy who found that martial arts training helped them much more than traditional forms of therapy.
To this day, Kloss keeps a box with letters from former students who wanted to thank him for what they gained from the martial arts classes.
“There are so many stories about the benefits of martial arts,” Kloss explained. “We have a lot of people who just don’t seem to fit in elsewhere, but we have a culture at our school where everyone gets included.”
Kloss has never stopped learning and he said that his students teach him something new every day. He currently has a fifth-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, a sixth-degree black belt in Hapkido, a third-degree black belt in Kukkiwon, taekwondo, and an instructor’s rank in the Scientific Fighting Congress with an unarmed combatives specialty.
Kloss said that he credits his teachers, starting with Godwin, for helping him learn so much. During his career, he has studied under Master Jae Chul Shin, who taught martial arts to Chuck Norris, and Ji Han Jae, who once had a role in a Bruce Lee movie.
“My whole life, I’ve had such great teachers,” he said. “I’m blessed, very blessed.”
He humbly hopes that his own students are receiving good instruction.
In addition to Tang Soo Do, the Korean Martial Arts Institute offers classes in hapkido, fitness kickboxing classes, and quarterly training for self-defense techniques.
The rapid rise in popularity of mixed martial arts has impacted martial arts studios everywhere, but Kloss has no interest in participating in, or teaching, a sport that some have compared to human cock-fighting.
“I give mixed martial artists credit for being good athletes, but we’re not going to teach full-contact,” he said. “It was appealing to me to have the wisdom and training that comes with martial arts that you don’t get in mixed martial arts.”
He added that he’s fearful of what might happen to the current generation of MMA fighters when all those blows to the head and body catch up with them.
As he approaches the 25th year as a martial arts instructor, he is focused on training the next generation of martial artists so that they, too, can benefit from the discipline and training.
He and his wife, Nicole, are raising their two daughters, Sonia, 13, and Kiara, 10, and Kloss said that Landenberg is a great place to raise a family. His personal goals, Kloss said, now revolve around being a good parent.
“I love Landenberg,” he said. “I grew up on a street in Philadelphia that had 66 row homes on one street. To come here and live, to look up in the sky and see all those stars…do you know how wonderful that is?”
In typical self-effacing fashion, Kloss jokes that he can’t believe he has been a martial arts instructor for 24 years. But then, he has learned a lesson or two about being an instructor along the way.
“People know if you care about them,” he explained. “Caring is part of the whole culture that we try to perpetuate at the studio. The most important thing you can do as an instructor is care about the students first. Otherwise, it’s just a job.”To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.