Wyoming Karate Club owner and instructor Sue Theise has spent much of her adult life teaching the sport she is so passionate about.
Since becoming owner of the club in 1997, Theise has taught martial arts to anyone willing to learn. She teaches adults, but kids make up the majority of her classes.
“The kids don’t do it for peer approval,” she said. “They do it because they love it and they see what it has done for them.”
Theise, 50, moved to Jackson Hole in 1988 after working in Bristol, England, for the British Broadcasting Company after college.
The Chicago native spent much of her time away from work backpacking through Europe, and she continued her hobby around Jackson and Yellowstone National Park.
Upon her arrival to Jackson Hole she joined the American Taekwondo Association and began training formally. She studied taekwondo for one semester at Southern Illinois University but says she did not “officially” take up the sport until coming to Wyoming. SIU was where she realized she loved martial arts. Wyoming was where martial arts became her true passion.
Theise is the club’s only full-time instructor and spends most all of her time teaching at the dojo (school) and attending martial arts clinics. She appreciates what little help she does have. Part-time instructor Rosie Askin Cully, along with a few former students of Theise’s who also serve as part-time teachers, help run a business that has had as many as 120 students at a time.
“Getting help has been the hardest thing,” she said. “There was probably a good 10 years where I did not take a vacation because it was just me.”
Theise took over the karate club in 1997 after training and teaching there since 1993. Her teacher offered her the club after seeing how passionate she was about karate and teaching. She accepted the offer.
She started with 20 children in a tight space that was not ideal for teaching a karate class. In 1999 she moved to her current location on Gregory Lane. She said the location is perfect because of its proximity to the schools.
One of the things that make Theise’s club unique is that she opens her doors to anyone, even if they cannot afford her classes.
“If I get someone who is really sincere and says, ‘Hey, I really want to do karate but I can’t afford it,’ I’m not going to turn them down,” she said. “As long as they make an effort, we’ll help them out.”
Theise has provided free classes, monthly tuition and equipment for needy students who want to learn karate.
She rarely asks for help, teaching as many kids as she can without donations. One exception came in 2008 when she had 11 blue belts ready to attend an elite karate camp on the East Coast.
These were students who had developed a passion for the sport and were committed to a future in karate. She wanted them to see brown belts and black belts from around the country and get a glimpse of what their future holds in the sport.
“I asked people if they’d be willing to donate some money to help these kids, and within two days we had the money to go,” she said. “Jackson’s incredible in that way. People are really supportive of things like that.”
Theise cannot believe the community support she receives for her kids. Earlier this year she once more had to ask for donations. The classes were in high demand, and 11 students needed financial assistance to continue training.
“It was getting to the point where we were like, ‘How can we balance this out?’” she said. “So we finally said ‘OK’ and asked for support. Within just a couple weeks we were able to cover our costs.”
Theise’s passion is karate, and sharing her passion with children is what she loves to do most. She said she doesn’t like to advertise it but said it’s easy for her to allow students to train at little cost if they really want to be there.
Her good deeds and hard work have been rewarded through donations and community support. But the kids give back to her as well.
Some students in the group of 11 the community helped send to the East Coast in 2008 are paying her back in their way five years later.
“Most of those kids went on to get their black belt, and some of them teach with me now,” she said. “That’s how they give back. They are role models for the next kids coming up.”
And that’s what she loves. Seeing kids who are in it for all the right reasons have success in karate and in life is what drives her.
“When you see their black belt papers and read what’s important tot them, it’s not kicking somebody’s butt,” Theise said. “It’s how these skills have helped them in school and in life.”
Theise said she wants to continue teaching the sport and running the club for a long time. She loves the club and said Jackson can “expect more of the same” in the future.
“We’ve been here 25 years, and I just hope it stays,” said Theise. “Whether it’s me for another 25 years or whatever, I’d really like to see it hang around.”