Judo Blog: Grandmaster Kyu Ha Kim's Life & Legacy

Kyu Ha Kim

"My Family grew rice on our farm in Korea. When the rice plants were young, they grew straight and tall. As they grew older and became heavy with rice, their heads bowed." -Grandmaster Kyu Ha Kim, 10th Degree Black Belt

In honor of my Sensei's 86th birthday my blog today is about Grandmaster Kim. I met him when I was 12 years old at the Jewish Y in Pittsburgh. To me, he will always be Mr. Kim which is what we called him back then. Christopher Moore, another one of his students in 2014 wrote an outstanding essay about him which included many of my own stories, links, and facts about this fascinating man. So I've asked Black Belt to publish it as written below.

I was born in Korea in 1935. I grew up in a small town near Daejeon. My first exposure to Judo came from my older brother. He showed me some techniques in the backyard. When I entered high school, I started to seriously train myself. Judo became my life. Through Judo I was able to go to college at the Yudo College which was later renamed Yong-In University.

After I won the National Championships for the second time, I became well known throughout Korea. I had the honor of teaching many members of the US military including some officers. I was invited to tour the United States teaching Judo. After visiting the United States, I decided I wanted to stay here. It was through Judo I was able to do this. I settled in Pittsburgh, PA and opened my dojo.

Today I have two dojos and also teach an accredited course at the University of Pittsburgh. I have had the honor of teaching thousands of people including several national champions and the current president of the USJA. I even coached the US Team.

Judo is quite literally my life. It brought me to this country. It is how I make a living. It is how I raised my family. My son is a professional judo instructor and my grandchildren are active competitors. I hope to see Judo grow in this country because it has so much to offer. I believe the world would be a better place if everyone did judo.

Painting and excerpt above are from the book, The Judo Greats: Andor Paposi-Jobb Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at Clarion State University of Pennsylvania. (Photos courtesy of Mr. Gary Goltz)

Kyu Ha Kim

Grandmaster Kyu Ha Kim stands where he has stood for over fifty years, in front of a group of students patiently explaining the subtleties of a Judo technique. At just over seventy-eight years old, he has the erect carriage of a much younger man, the result of a lifetime of martial arts training. Standing six feet two inches tall and weighing two hundred thirty pounds, he is an imposing figure.

Once described as a "large and joyous man," he radiates kindness. His school in Brentwood, Pennsylvania echoes with the sound of his laughter. Quiet, humble and self-effacing, few of the students listening with rapt attention know that the kindly man standing before them is a martial artist of rare accomplishment- a 9th degree black belt in Judo and an 8th degree black belt in Taekwondo-or that in June of 2008, he became the oldest successful heart transplant recipient in the history of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Kyu Ha Kim Mother

Kyu Ha Kim with his mother in the 1970s and now in 2021.

Kyu Ha Kim was born on February 24, 1935 near the city of Daejeon, in rural the province of South Chungcheong (abv. Chungnam), approximately 100 miles south of Seoul, Korea. His parents were farmers, who raised livestock, tended fruit trees, and grew vegetables, beans, corn and rice on the family farm. Members of his family continue to live on and work the farm to this day.

Kyu Ha Kim began his martial arts training in his home village at the age of five; his first teacher was his elder half-brother, Kyu Tae Kim. At fifteen, Kyu Ha Km entered Tae Jon High School and began formal martial arts training under Han Sang Yul. Training was rigorous: two hours daily, six days a week, Monday through Saturday. Sundays were, "rest days," although students often gathered

to practice, "light uchi komi (Judo repetition fitting)," for a "few hours," on Sunday afternoons!

Training was undifferentiated by discipline and included a broad spectrum of martial arts techniques we would recognize today as Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, or its Korean interpretation, Yudo, and Taekwondo (note: the name Taekwondo was not applied to the group of Korean hard-style martial arts from which it was formed until the late 1950's). Kyu Ha Kim's Judo students practice striking, both Judo atemi waza and basic Taekwondo and his Taekwondo students learn Judo ukemi waza and fundamental Judo throws. Kyu Ha Kim continued to train in this manner until his graduation from Tae Jon High School, at which time he was promote to 1st degree black belt. His promotion to 1st degree black belt did not come easily, however. In spite of his dedication to the school's demanding training regimen and his success in high school tournament competition, he failed his promotional test for 1st degree black belt nine times before finally succeeding!

When Kyu Ha Kim graduated from high school the Korean War (1950-1953) was raging. Like many young Korean men, in spite of the 80% casualty rate, Kyu Ha Kim planned to join the army. Fortunately, his Judo instructor, Han Sang Yul, convinced him that his life's path was in a different direction and that he should pursue a career as a martial arts teacher. Kyu Ha Kim followed his advice and went on to study physical education at what was then the Korean Yudo college, (now Yong-In University), from 1954-1958.

Founded in Sogong-dong in 1953 as a two-year college, it became recognized as a four-year institution in 1956 with the establishment of the Dae Myung School. The Yudo College was the first college level institution devoted to martial arts training in Asia. Its name was later changed to Yong-in University to reflect the addition of a full academic curriculum to the wide array of martial arts taught and practiced: Judo, Taekwondo, Hapkido, Kumdo, Kuksundo, Ssirium, etc. Admittance to the Yudo College was only granted to the most qualified black belt applicants. Kyu Ha Kim was among the first students accepted into the Yudo College's inaugural class, which originally numbered thirty-eight students, only twelve of whom graduated!

The curriculum at the Yudo College consisted of academic university classes and hour upon hour of rigorous martial arts training.

Training was even more arduous than Kyu Ha Km experience in high school, often up to three hours a day with high level Yudoin (Yudo practitioners; equivalent to Judoka). Students eschewed, "tapping out," the customary indication of submission when practicing groundwork and were regularly choked to unconsciousness! While enrolled at Yong-in University, Kyu Ha Kim studied under Grandmaster Jin Kyung Suk, who was among the highest ranked Judo practitioners in Korea at that time.
Kyu Ha Kim Suk Sensei

Kyu Ha Kim and Suk Sensei 1972

Students lived at Yong-in University during the year and were only permitted to return to their homes during summer recess. On one occasion, unhappy with his left-side Judo technique, within a few days of returning to his home, Kyu Ha Kim went back to the University to drill his left-side techniques exclusively for the balance of the summer.

In 1955, during his second semester at the Yudo College, Kyu Ha Kim qualified for the Korean National Judo Championships and was placed on the Chungnam province five-man Judo team. During this time, under Syngman Rhee, Korea's first post WWII President, martial arts competition between provinces was instituted as a means to foster Korean nationalism.) Kyu Ha Kim represented his province both as an individual and a team member.

In 1958, he won the Korean National Judo Championship, both as an individual and team member, a feat he repeated in 1960. Normally, students were promoted to 4th degree black belt upon graduation from Yong-in University, however, in recognition of his two national championships, when graduated in 1958; Kyu Ha Kim was promoted to 5th degree black belt.

Kyu Ha Kim attended the Korean Yudo College during the aftermath of the Korean War. The years following the Korean War, on the heels of WW ll and the extended occupation and effort to colonize Korea by Japan (1910-1945), was a time of unimaginable loss and deprivation. The war which raged across the Manchurian peninsula resulted in hardship of every description, including widespread food shortages.

Kyu Ha Kim's family occupation as farmers spared them from much of the starvation experienced by so many of his countrymen, although he vividly recalls days with little, if any, food. Families were often forced to abandon their homes to flee from advancing troops.

At one point, Kyu Ha Kim's entire village was destroyed, and the surrounding countryside was reduced to ash by bombing and the subsequent firestorm. The training hall where he spent hours every day did not escape damage. Glass was often broken out of windows, allowing snow to blow onto the mat in the winter. Fuel was scarce; the training hall often went unheated. The training hall was freezing in the winter and stifling hot in the summer. Streets, damaged during the war, remained unpaved. Eventually, the training hall was completely destroyed during a bombing run, only to be rebuilt by Kyu Ha Kim and his fellow students, determined to continue their training. Throughout and despite these harsh conditions, Kyu Ha Kim continued to train.

In 1959, Kyu Ha Kim was given the honor of returning to Yong-in University to teach Judo and was also invited by the Korean Air Force Academy to teach martial arts. By so doing, he became the first Judo instructor to teach at a Korean military academy. These events mark the beginning of Kyu Ha Kim's more than fifty-year career as a professional martial teacher. It was during this time that his students bestowed the title, "The Tree," upon him when they found it virtually impossible to unbalance him during randori (free sparring)!

It was also in 1959 when Kyu Ha Kim began formal training in Taekwondo. Grandmaster Jin Kyung Suk, Kyu Ha Kim's Judo teacher, to complement Kyu Ha Kim's Judo training, recommended and introduced him to Grandmaster Hwang Ki, the founder of the Moo Do Kwan Tang Soo Do School. Grandmaster Hwang sent one of his best assistant instructors, Kyung Won Lee, to the Korean air Force Academy to teach Tang Soo Do. Kyung Won Lee taught Kyu Ha Kim Tang Soo Do and Kyu Ha Kim taught Kyung Won Lee Judo. At the time Kyu Ha Kim began training, Grandmaster Hwang Ki referred to his art as Tang Soo Do (Grandmaster Hwang's art underwent several name changes: Hwa Soo Do, Soo Bahk Do...).

During this period, a number of Korean hard-style striking arts were integrated and named Taekwondo and a schism developed within Moo Doo Kwan Tang Soo Do; with many practitioners joining the unification movement. However Grandmaster Hwang, elected not to join.

To this day, there remains a distinct martial art, Soo Bahk Do Moo Do Kwan, led by Grandmaster Hwang Ki's son, Hwang Hyun Chul. That portion of Grandmaster Hwang Ki's martial art that was integrated into Taekwondo is referred to as Moo Do Kwan Taekwondo, the form of Taekwondo practiced by Kyu Ha Kim's students.

In December of 1959, Kyu Ha Kim had the pleasure of engaging in a randori session with the giant Dutch martial arts luminary, Mr. Jon Bluming. Mr. Bluming trained in Judo, Karate, Iaido and Jojutsu in Japan from 1959-1961. Mr. Bluming also visited the Philippines and Korea. Mr. Bluming is currently a 10th degree black belt in Masutatsu Oyama's tough Kyokushinkai style of Karate and a 9th degree black belt in Judo.

The encounter between Mr. Bluming and Kyu Ha Km is described in detail from Mr. Bluming's point of view in an article in Journal of Combative Sport, November 1, 1999, Doing Judo at the Korean Yudo College, "The Day I Met Kyu Ha Kim." The outcome of their randori session is best described by Mr. Bluming, it was the last thing that was easy about Kyu Ha Kim, for after that he completely vacuum-cleaned the mat with me, which convinced me that, yes, this was the Korean champ!"

Kyu Ha Kim's initial exposure to the US included attendance at any number of Judo seminars and tournaments where he often found himself challenged by local Judoka, eager to test their skills against those of the two-time Korean Champion.

On one such occasion, while attending a tournament at the US Air Force Academy, he was asked to, "take the line" (engaging in randori sequentially with a series of young Judoka). Kyu Ha Kim was able to easily overcome everyone with little apparent effort. When asked how he was able to do so with such ease, he replied, "simple, I work harder than all of you!"

Kyu Ha Kim

Kyu Ha Kim in Oklahoma circa 1962

Upon his arrival in Pittsburgh, Kyu Ha Kim began teaching martial arts at the Pittsburgh School of Judo. After that he taught at the Young Men's and Women's Hebrew Association (YMWHA) in order to maintain his visa.
Kyu Ha Kim Gary Goltz

Kyu Ha Kim & Gary Goltz at the Pittsburgh Jewish "Y" in 1966

Kyu Ha Kim also began to teach Judo at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association (PAA) to a number of Pittsburgh's prominent citizens, including Bob Prince, the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team's long time radio announcer. In less than two years, he opened his own school, Kim's Judo & Karate, in the South hills area of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching at his school, Kyu Ha Km played a central role in organizing Judo and Taekwondo in Pennsylvania and on the East coast.

From 1964-1978, he was a member of the National Judo Promotion Board where he was instrumental in instituting a number of substantive changes to the Judo promotion process including the establishment of regional governing bodies with promotional authority. In 1965, Kyu Ha Kim became the first president of the Pennsylvania state Judo organization, Pennsylvania Judo, Inc., a post currently held by his son, Eugene, now a 7th degree black belt in both Judo and Taekwondo.

Kim's Judo School

Kim's Judo School 1970 - video link (Gary is in the top row 4th from the left)

In 1971, Mr. Gary Goltz, then a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh and student of Kyu Ha Kim, petitioned the University to start a Judo program. Mr. Goltz was an early student of Kyu Ha Kim in Pittsburgh who only undertook Judo when Kyu Ha Kim agreed to reimburse Mr. Goltz' father for his uniform if his son didn't like Judo! Mr. Goltz is now a Hachidan, 8th degree black belt, and has served as President of both USJA and of the Nanka Judo Yudanshakai.

As a result, Kyu Ha Kim was invited to teach credit courses in Judo, Taekwondo and Jiu-Jitsu by the University where he continues to teach over forty years later. In 1985, as coach of the University of Pittsburgh's Judo team, he was selected as the National Collegiate Judo Coach of the Year.

Pittsburgh Judo

University of Pittsburgh Judo Class 2013

Although Kyu Ha Kim's primary interest has always been teaching martial arts, he has also coached prominently at both the national and international level.

  • Named as the US Judo Team Coach for the Pan American Games and World Championships is 1976 and 1977 respectively.
  • Appointed US National Judo Team Coach for the World Championships in Barcelona, Spain.
  • In 1977, selected to coach the US Team at the first Kano Cup in Tokyo, Japan, a prestigious Judo tournament reserved for the top twenty Judo countries in the world.
  • In 1979, elected the US Olympic Team Coach for the 1980 Olympic Games, which the US chose to boycott.

Kyu Ha Kim has taught literally hundreds of Judo and Taekwondo students and produced scores of state and national champions. The achievements of three students are of particular note: Ms. Robin Chapman Chow was the 1977 Open US National Women's Champion, Ms. Cynthia Nicholas was an alternate on the 1996 Women's Olympic Judo Team, and Mr. Conor Driscoll, who contended for a spot on the Men's Olympic Judo Team in 2008, and competed in the World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Japan in 2010 as a member of the US Team.

In 1994, Kyu Ha Kim became one of the first inductees into the newly formed United States Judo Hall of Fame as one of the ten most prominent influences on the development of Judo in the United States.

In May of 2000, the Korean Judo Association and the International Judo Federation promoted Kyu Ha Kim to the rank of Kudan, 9th degree black belt, a rank few Judoka in the world have achieved. Kyu Ha Kim is the youngest individual in the history of Judo to be accorded this honor.

Early in his eighth decade, Kyu Ha Kim face what was to be his greatest challenge. In 2007, his health began to deteriorate due to a virus he developed idiopathic cardiomyopathy, a degenerative heart condition. Eventually, his heart condition deteriorated to the point where, in July of 2007, his doctors elected to implant a pacemaker. This procedure, although initially successful, became complicated by a series of staph infections, which required him to spend weeks in the hospital.

As his heart muscle continued to deteriorate, it became clear that a heart transplant had to be considered. The initial evaluation of Kyu Ha Kim as a heart transplant candidate was not encouraging, notwithstanding his extraordinary level of fitness. His age at the time, seventy-three, was considered a deterrent. This fact coupled with the scarcity of donor hearts-the Mayo Clinic estimates the number of individuals increases by 4,000 each day-made a heart transplant unlikely.

At first, Kyu Ha Kim was reluctant to consider heart replacement surgery. It was only extended conversations with his family and his former student, Mr. Gary Goltz that he agreed to add his name to the heart transplant recipient waiting list. Mr. Goltz reminded Kyu Ha Kim that he had a profound influence on his life and that he should do whatever was necessary to extend his life and continue to positively influence the lives young people, especially those of his grandchildren. Like a champion, Kyu Ha Kim agreed.

Although the prognosis was bleak, Kyu Ha Kim and his family refused to surrender to fate and eventually found their way to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a wonderful team of doctors led by his surgeon, Dr. Christian Bermudez. The medical staff conducted yet another battery of tests and concluded that in spite of his age, Kyu Ha Km's physical condition made him an excellent candidate for a heart transplant. According to Dr. Bermudez, only a tiny fraction of potential heart transplant patients with circumstances similar to Kyu Ha Kim successfully undergo this procedure.

In 1980, of the twelve hundred procedures performed at UPMC, only fifteen to twenty fell into this category. Although many heart transplant recipients must wait weeks and months for a donor heart, fortunately, after only two weeks on the heart transplant waiting list, a donor heart became available. Although the donor heart was less than perfect it exhibited signs of cardiovascular disease Kyu Ha Km elected, in his words, "to take a chance," and undergo on June 28, 2008 the heart transplantation operation.

The heart transplant surgery was a ten-hour procedure. The evening after the surgery, he was alert and hungry! The following day, the medical staff had him standing. In just over a month following his heart transplantation procedure, Kyu Ha Kim returned to his school and to the mat.

Dr. Bermudez attributed the success of Kyu Ha Kim's heart transplant to his remarkable physical condition, a product of his lifelong commitment to martial arts training. Those who know him well understand that it is equally true that his survival and recovery were due in no small measure to his unconquerable spirit.

Today, Kyu Ha Kim has returned to his life's calling and teaches a full complement of martial arts classes at his Brentwood school and the University of Pittsburgh. Each day finds him training, teaching and inspiring another generation of martial artists. In an age when so many martial artists lay claim to the title, Master, Kyu Ha Kim is among the few who richly deserve the title, Grandmaster.

Kim's Martial Arts

Kim's Martial Arts 2012

Kyu Ha Kim Grandson

Kyu Ha Kim throwing his grandson in honor of his black belt promotion

Kyu Ha Kim Gary Goltz

Gary Goltz (2nd row far left) at Grandmaster Kim's Dojo in 1968

Author's Note: Grandmaster Kim speaks about his many accomplishments with great reluctance. It took innumerable discussions over the course of years and input from family members, former students, and colleagues to complete this narrative of GM Kim's life. Thanks to everyone. Special thanks are due to GM Chan-Yong Kim for his help filling in the blanks. -Christopher Moore


Kyu Ha Kim passed away the morning of May 14, 2021 peaceably of old age. He was 86.

The USJA subsequently promoted him to the honorary rank of judan, 10th Degree Black Belt.

Kyu Ha Kim 10th Degree

Bonus Content

Mr. Kim Ticket Story - Gary Goltz

Years ago I remember my judo instructor, Mr. Kim driving us back from an event getting pulled over for making an illegal turn. When the officers asked for his license and registration because he was wearing his judo gi, he had to go to the trunk to get the information for them.

After a 15 minute discussion he got back in the car and I asked him if they gave him a ticket. He said no, the officers saw all his judo paraphernalia and they ended up talking about judo for 15 minutes then they let him go.

But it doesn't stop there. That same night at the judo class two new adult students with their kids showed up to register and who were they, none other than the two cops. I've told the story to salespeople for over 40 years, on how to turn a bad situation into a positive one.

Ode to Mr. Kim - Mary Kim

❖ Lessons learned we did apply

❖ Experience taught lead by example

❖ Our mistakes were often common and mantle

❖ You didn't no, bicker or judge

❖ You were so patient, your love didn't budge

❖ Your body was strong and your spirit was stronger

❖ We wanted to be a kid just a little longer

❖ You were healthy strong and wise

❖ Then you were ill to our demise

❖ You didn't give up you hung on

❖ And your new heart renewed your braun

❖ Looking back makes us smile

❖ Always displaying so much style

❖ On this day when you were born

❖ The sky was filled with bright stars adorn

❖ With love and honor

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