By Stacy Allegro
On any night of the week for nearly four decades, the respectful battle cry of Ooooos Sensei, could be heard echoing through the halls of West America Tae Kwon Do located on the Edna Maguire Campus in Mill Valley.
Last month, the cry was silenced for 7 minutes, one for each of Grand Master Roger Carlon’s degrees, to honor the memory with a final bow of respect to the man many referred to as the ‘Godfather of Martial Arts in Marin. Carlon passed away on September 25th while vacationing in Mexico.
Born in Nice, France, Carlon was a gifted athlete and was tapped early for a possible spot on the French National Track team. His Gazelle-like speed and grace eventually became his trademark on the World Tae Kwon Do circuit.
Carlon was lured by the American dream and, in 1970, moved to New York, where he found work as a bartender in a discotheque. Things in the disco scene in New York had a way of turning ugly fast, and it was during one of these moments that a young Carlon was inspired to sign up for self-defense classes. That inspiration turned into a passion, and he never looked back. After six years and a yearning to start his own business, he left the cold winters of NYC for the promise of sunshine and opportunity and moved to San Francisco.
Having earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management before leaving Nice, now fortified with his bartending experience in NYC, Carlon, along with two partners, opened a restaurant in San Francisco. He continued his daily martial arts training earning his first- and second-degree Black Belts in Hapkido. It was then that he realized his passion and talent for Martial Arts were stronger than his love for the restaurant business, and in 1983, opened West America Tae Kwon Do in Mill Valley. In 1985, he became the United States Karate Association Grand Champion, and in 1987, he became the World champion in the WAKO Open Forms division. He was recognized as a certified instructor by the governing organization for Olympic Tae Kwon Do, WTF, Kukkiwon and eventually earned his seventh degree. His complete list of degrees and awards is almost super-human.
He had a unique teaching style. You could go to any tournament and recognize his students. Not just by the armfuls of medals and trophies they would win but by the flawless technique, skills, and respect his students demonstrated on and off the mats. He created generations of Austin-Power-worthy Mini-me’s training his students to be champions in and out of the ring.
One step into his now four-decade-old dojo proudly managed by his daughter, Chantal, 35, and Roger Jr., 33, both champions and 4th degree Black Belts, reveals an impressive montage. A story larger than most five lifetimes about the father, the friend, the community leader, and the man that everyone affectionately called Sensei.
The words “We are a Black Belt School” are painted across the top with hundreds of ribbons, trophies, and awards won both nationally and internationally by Carlon and his students. Pictures of Carlon with the likes of Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Master William Kim, line the walls but ask him his favorite, and with the grin of a proud papa, he would point to the walls full of hundreds of his biggest accomplishments, pictures of his black belt students.
Oozing with French charm, bad jokes, and an infectious laugh, Carlon had a gift for bringing out the best in everyone. He used to say, “not all my students will be the next Bruce Lee, what’s important is that they all think they can be.” Make no mistake, Carlon did inspire champions, lots of them. He trained over 60 National Champions. He took teams to the Nationals and the Junior Olympics and twice took a team to Korea. Every member of those teams brought home a medal. The Demo team performed in the SF Chinese New Years’ parade for three years, winning an award for best performance every year.
He was one of the first to choreograph intricate forms known as Palgwes to music, with each move landing perfectly with each beat. His performances and those of his students were electrifying to watch. His reputation for creating original forms and champions was far-reaching, and students would come from all over the country to learn from him.
He was a man who embodied what he taught. He was strict but gentle, tough but patient, and reasonably demanding. Watching him teach or perform was like watching a perfectly executed ballet. Every movement was expertly choreographed, a bad-ass Baryshnikov!
He was unflappably religious and spiritual, deeply committed to his family, and fiercely loyal to his friends. He loved his life in Marin, and on the rare days he wasn’t teaching, he could be found riding his bicycle up and down Mount Tam, playing with his grandchildren Mila,3, and Livi, 2, and walking his three rescue dogs. He also loved to travel, always visiting different schools or finding places to teach on the beach just to meet people and share his love of martial arts.
Roger Carlon cared deeply for his community and considered all the members of the dojo his extended family, and his dojo members included him in theirs. People used to jokingly say he raised half the kids in Marin. He participated every year in the Mill Valley Memorial Day parade, was proud to be a Kiddo business partner, and was honored twice by the Pacific Sun as Teacher of the year. He provided a safe environment where kids could stay after class and do their homework until they could be picked up. He hosted a yearly unforgettable holiday party for family and friends of the dojo (0ver 400 people) with performances from the demo team and awards to deserving students.
For these past few weeks, there has been a steady stream of students, former students, and friends, shocked and saddened by the news, leaving flowers and notes outside the dojo, “You were like a father to me; I will never forget you. Anything I am today, I am because of you. Thank you Sensei.”
Yes, indeed, Roger Carlon was everyone’s champion, and he will be sorely missed. Still, his indomitable spirit will live on in the hearts of his children, his grandchildren, the students he touched, and the many generations to come who will honor his memory and be proud to wear the West America Tae Kwon Do uniform.
**The dojo is open for classes, and people who wish to come in and pay respect are always welcome**