It's a Wednesday evening at the Webster M. Kendrick Recreation Center in West Cold Spring. Outside there is the peace that typically comes with day's end in this quiet Northwest Baltimore neighborhood. But inside the gym it's a different story. There, young warriors prepare for battle. The Avengers Karate Club is about to meet.
The smallest combatant is a 6-year-old barely 4 feet tall, the largest a teen-ager who has pushed past 6 feet. Their size difference doesn't mean they won't pair up to spar. Such a match would illustrate what this karate club is about, teaching kids they can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds with the right attitude.
The Avengers Club has been using karate to teach that lesson for 30 years. Plans are being made to celebrate the club's anniversary on Aug. 20 at Martin's West. (See accompanying box.) Special tributes will be given to club founder Riley Hawkins, whose students have grown up and are themselves teaching Avengers members now.
The 150 Avengers come from all over Baltimore. Their home the past 10 years has been the Kendrick rec center, where karate classes are held every Monday and Wednesday night. All the students are asked to bring is a desire to learn. They can buy a karate uniform if they like, but there are no other costs.
"The lessons have always been free," Mr. Hawkins said. "Besides, karate is the least important part of what we do. What we want them to learn is discipline, how to control their bodies and their minds. Learn that, and they will be successful adults."
As if to demonstrate what "Master Hawkins" has been talking about, instructor Tony Jackson calls the Avengers to order. The younger members have been roughhousing, as kids are apt to do, practicing what looks like something they learned from the Power Rangers on television, rather than in class.
Mr. Jackson orders the apparent ring leader to drop and give him 10 push-ups. "You didn't have permission to do that, did you?" the 17-year veteran of the Marine Corps barks. "No, sir," is the meek reply.
The instructor then orders the 20 students in this class to line up. There are only two girls in the group this day, both about 9 years old. Most of the students wear the white belts of beginners, but there are a couple of the higher-rank yellow belts among them. As always, they begin their lessons with a bow to the instructor.
Next comes 10 minutes of stretches, followed by 10 minutes of calisthenics, then punching exercises. Finally, before they break into pairs for sparring, each student greets every other member of the club with a handshake.
They want to keep the fighting friendly. And most of the time it is. But sometimes that becomes difficult.
Six-year-old Mustafa Jackson is one of those perpetual-motion machines who makes up for lack of technique with constant movement. The inevitable happens this evening, an unanticipated punch to the nose of his partner, 9-year-old Ashley Payne-El.
Ashley cries, but after class takes it all in stride, even confessing that "I like to fight here because I get to hit my brother [Sherman Payne-El, 7]. We can't fight at home."
Mr. Hawkins, 51, a security escort at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, said he first got interested in the martial arts when he was 14. He took jujitsu classes at the YMCA from Bob McPherson, an Air Force veteran who had learned the fighting technique while overseas.
Later, Mr. Hawkins took karate classes at Morgan State University from Herbert Hines.
The middle child of seven siblings, Mr. Hawkins began teaching what he learned to his baby sister and two younger brothers. Then they wanted him to teach karate to their friends.
Before long there were so many kids wanting karate lessons that Mr. Hawkins moved the classes from his home to Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church. It was there that the Avengers club was born.
"We started our club in 1965 and called it the Avengers," he said. "The kids named it. We started going to tournaments the next year. They've always come back with a trophy or something."
Before this evening's class is over there are six adult black belts helping the young Avengers learn karate techniques through both demonstrations and individual instruction.
Mr. Hawkins no longer teaches the children. But on weekends he holds classes for about 25 black belts who rotate serving as karate instructors at the rec. They are all Avengers who, after growing up, decided to give back what they got from the program.
Willie "Wink" Saffore, 30, said he didn't hesitate when given an opportunity to teach young Avengers. "What they have to do when they're in here will give them the discipline to deal with the streets," he said. "Riley taught me things a father would teach his son. He instilled values in me. I want to do that for someone else."
Joe Miller, 42, has been an Avenger since he was 14. He would go to the YMCA on Druid Hill Avenue, where Mr. Hawkins worked with kids after moving the classes from the church.
"Watching Riley got me interested; I've been hooked ever since," he said.
Mr. Miller credits the discipline he learned from karate classes with giving him the will to start his own business. Miller Transportation Co. now has nine buses and seven employees. The company provides transportation for many private schools in Baltimore.
Mr. Hawkins says many of his former students now have successful careers in business and politics. Two former Avengers are state Del. Tony Fulton, D-40th District, and Baltimore City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, D-4th District, who has a black belt.
Mrs. Dixon admits the only reason she joined the Avengers after finishing high school was to stay close to a boyfriend who was a member. But she stayed in the karate club 15 years, long after she stopped pursuing that particular fellow and long enough to earn her black belt (the highest rank).
"I saw joining the club as a challenge," Mrs. Dixon said. "There were only a couple of other girls in the club when I started, and they were much younger than me. I had to condition my body and my mind. They didn't take pity on me because I was a woman or girl. To earn my brown belt I had to fight six black belts at the same time."
Mr. Fulton, who joined the Avengers when he was 14, says he remembers seeing Mrs. Dixon in action years later. "She was mean," he said. His studies at Morgan State University, however, left little time for karate, so Mr. Fulton dropped the sport.
"I didn't want to come to school black and blue every day," he said. But he added that he still uses the other knowledge he gained from Mr. Hawkins.
"The kind of discipline Riley teaches changes people's lives," he said.
"Riley has been the kind of unsung hero who never gets his name in the limelight," Mrs. Dixon said. "He's had such a positive impact on a lot of people. People don't even realize what he's done, focusing on children in the inner city."
The youngest Avengers now may not fully understand the mental tools they are also gaining in the karate classes. But as they get older they will come to realize karate isn't the most important survival skill they are acquiring.
"They deal with the total child, not just his ability to do karate. They look at report cards, they try to help single mothers," said Gordon Baker, director of the Kendrick Recreation Center, at Callaway and Fernhill avenues.
"I'm learning to control myself," said Ricky Young, 12, a sixth-grader who hopes to attend Mother Seton Academy in the fall. "I know now that I can just walk away. I don't have to fight."
"I know later in life I'm going to thank these people," said Rex Redditt, 13, who'll be entering the ninth grade at Dunbar High School in the fall. "They're teaching me discipline that will keep me out of trouble. And I've made friends. We go to the movies together. We eat out. It used to be hard for me to make friends."
Gerald Harkless, 36, one of the instructors, said the friendships made in the Avengers can last a lifetime. "We develop these special bonds with each other. You'll find us socializing and doing things together as adults that have nothing to do with karate."
Mr. Hawkins said the Avengers play ball and go to the movies together. They even held a picnic for senior citizens June 24 at Druid Hill Park.
The instructors try to develop similarly close relationships with the children in the club. That some of their parents were Avengers when they were younger makes that easier. "We're like an extended family," said Mr. Jackson.
"When we get to a kid, you can see the change in his attitude," he said. "I want to touch as many people as I possibly can. That's why we reach out and try to pull in guys who might be out there getting high. We try to get them off the street."
Mr. Hawkins says he carefully chooses the adult Avengers who serve as instructors. They have to display a special rapport with children. He teaches his black belts advanced martial-arts skills, but usually not when the children are around.
Mr. Hawkins said he doesn't want the children to see techniques that could be fatally applied. "They see enough on television. Sometimes we'll give them a demonstration, but not with the martial-arts weapons," he said.
"We're trying to build character. When a child joins the club, their family becomes our family. We train these children to recognize each other anywhere they go. We teach them that the older guys are always here for them."
It might cost parents a lot to send their children to a karate school that teaches children the same lessons that Mr. Hawkins gives away. He says the karate is just a vehicle to teach children to use self-discipline to handle any situation, including peer pressure to use drugs or drop out of school.
Mr. Hawkins said even if he could figure out what to charge, he wouldn't put a price tag on such lessons. "I never wanted to do it for the money," he said.
HAROLD JACKSON is an editorial writer for The Sun.
The Avengers Karate Club will hold a 30th anniversary dinner dance at 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20, at Martin's West. The public is invited. Tickets are $35 each. For more information, call Joe Miller or Tony Jackson at (410) 578-0205.