In the humid June heat of Little Rock, Jackie Gunzenhauser tested for her fourth-degree black belt with the sun at its height. Arkansas weather is like Iowa’s, except hotter. However, it was a journey she felt compelled four years ago to undertake. The only thing that could have stopped Jackie was herself.
“I was not confident I hit it out of the park,” Jackie said of her performance before a panel of judges. “I thought I did well, but it wasn’t in my hands, it was in the hands of 15 people I had never met before.”
After three weeks, Jackie still did not know if she had passed. She needed to score a seven on a 10-point scale.
Adding to the challenge, only a year before, Jackie underwent rotator cuff surgery and the necessary rehabilitation. She did not use it as an excuse. She knows of another black belt with no fingers on one hand who excels. There are blind martial arts instructors in Iowa. Torn muscles, broken bones and strained ligaments are minor compared to what some must face.
“It took most of that year to get fully recovered and rehabbed,” Jackie said. She attended physical therapy at Wayne County Hospital in Corydon. “The staff there was amazing, because I set up some pretty steep goals, and they helped me reach them. I said I had to have my shoulder useable for martial arts.”
At this point in her life, Jackie’s career is martial arts. On the morning of Humeston’s annual summer celebration, she learned she had scored an eight, and thus had earned her fourth-degree black belt.
“I got the call on Watermelon Day that I had passed,” Jackie said. “I was excited and shaking—it was great. I was thrilled to not just barely pass, but to have an extra point.
“It opened up a world of possibilities, which gets into the minutiae of the business. As a fourth degree, I’m not required to have another judge sign off on my testings.”
“I was ecstatic,” said her husband, Bob Gunzenhauser. “It was just awesome. She had put a lot of effort into this over several years. I know how much work she put into it.
“It’s fun. When people ask me what my wife does, I say, ‘She’s a fourth-degree black belt.’ That’s nice to be able to say.”
“And I don’t use martial arts on him,” Jackie joked. “I tried to practice a self-defense move once, and we both fell down and he twisted his ankle.”
As well, Jackie had qualified as a district championship to earn a spot in the world tournament in Little Rock, where she was proud to finish fourth in sparring.
“The night of my testing, I had to go back and compete,” Jackie said. “Some of these women fight 10 to 12 times a year. I compete three to four times a year. I was in the ring and I was hanging tight with them. I was thrilled beyond belief to get fourth place, coming from a small town in Iowa. I lost to the eventual champion.”
Previously, it had been since October of 2013 when Jackie had earned her third-degree black belt in Sioux Falls, S.D. It took four years of training and teaching to reach her next goal.
A trusted friend and former student, Lori Lockwood, travelled to Arkansas with Jackie.
“I told Lori, ‘Just in case you want to know, I’m going to Little Rock in June.’ She said, ‘I’m already in your car.’ And she was, and it was great to have that support.”
They were there from Tuesday to Saturday for that week of competition and testing.
“Two hard, full days of physical training,” Jackie said. “They call it Legacy Training. It prepared me to bring up my own students as instructors.”
Jackie’s business, the Humeston ATA Black Belt Academy, brings together parents and their children from the school districts of Central Decatur, Chariton, Mormon Trail and Wayne, among homeschooled children. When Jackie opened her club in November of 2009, there was a vacuum waiting to be filled.
For the record, her students know her as Mrs. Jackie.
Jackie grew up in Tripoli, 30 miles north of Cedar Falls. Her mother and one brother still live there. When Jackie attended Iowa State University, she did not practice a martial art. In 1997, she earned her degree in animal science.
“I liked animals when I was growing up,” Jackie said. “I was into the 4H scene. I had originally thought about going to vet school. I worked on the nutrition side for a while. I did data entry for an agricultural company. Then I worked for a non-profit agricultural support organization, the Iowa Farmers Union. I don’t use that degree anymore.”
“Feeding our calves,” her husband corrected her. “We have about 10 calves a year. We also have some chickens. Prior to this year, I was farming part-time about 230 acres. Up until about 2008, I was farming about 1,100 acres. Then I had the opportunity to work for Pioneer. I’ve been doing that for nine years.”
“It’s just hobby farming now,” Jackie said.
While living in Ames, she began attending the ATA club on Main Street.
“One free class and I was hooked,” Jackie said. That was in November of 1999. “I was 24 at the time. There was a very positive atmosphere of the students there. I could see a bunch of different belts represented. I could see the progression. There was a lot of energy and happiness. I loved it.”
She earned her first-degree black belt in June of 2001. She continued training until 2003, before her oldest, son Graydon, was born.
“Life changed really fast,” Jackie said. “I didn’t train again until 2009, once a week in Des Moines. It took me one class to decide, ‘I love this too much—I’ve got to get back into it.’ The whole plan was to train so I could open a club. I continued to work to gain my ranks and teaching certification.”
She received her second-degree black belt in October of 2010, after she started her Wayne County club on the second floor of the old library in Humeston, in the Odd Fellows Lodge.
A few years before that, she had started working as a librarian downstairs, then moved to the new building across from Chris Street Memorial Park. She picked the upstairs of the old library because that was the only space available for rent.
“And quite frankly I was not qualified, but I was determined.”
In 2010, Jackie and her husband bought the building along Highway 65.
Jackie and Bob both attended ISU at the same time, but they did not date until after college.
“We had mutual friends,” Bob said. “Maybe we had seen each other on campus, but we never met each other. I knew her brother from the same department I was taking classes, ag engineering. I was in ag systems technology. Later, I added an ag education degree. I got into student teaching and found I didn’t like it—I wasn’t interested in teaching parliamentary procedure to eighth graders.
“We met in 2001 through an introduction service. We went on one date, and by the second date it was pretty much set.”
They got married in 2002 on the Ides of March.
They have three children. Graydon is now 14, middle child Madallyn is 12, and Emersen is 9.
Jackie can trace her lineage to the great 19th century American transcendental writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“My great-grandmother was an Emerson,” Jackie said.
Bob graduated from Mormon Trail in 1991. His parents are Paul and Karla Gunzenhauser. His family farmed around 330 acres near Humeston and Garden Grove. They raised hogs and cattle.
Bob’s great-grandfather ran the New Era newspaper from the 1910s to the 1940s.
There are aspects of martial arts that can only be learned by teaching.
“How to bring the best out of a multitude of personalities,” Jackie said, “a variety of attention deficit disorders in cases, confidence issues. It takes a while to get to the core of each of those kids, and in some cases, adults, to bring out the best they can bring to the mat. That was something I didn’t know how to do just being a black belt.”
Several of her younger students suffer from ADD or ADHD, and that energy can be harnessed, to a certain extent, through the forms and rigor of Taekwondo.
“Parents say their kids are bouncing around the house and trying to copy something they saw in the movies,” Jackie said. “I enjoy those kids. From time to time, they’ll say they want to show me this move they saw on TV. I have to say, ‘No, let me show you.’ But not in a mean way. It’s easy to think that if they see it on TV they can make their bodies do that. It’s usually way more complicated than what they think.
“The biggest thing I learned, when I took some students to my instructor, he looked at my material and then my students and he said, ‘I can tell you taught them. They’re making the same mistakes you make.’
“It was an eye opener. The little errors I make are magnified in my students. That means my technique must be the very best I can make it at all times, and I have to be aware of my shortcomings, because what I don’t do well will come out in my students.”
“First of all, you don’t have to be the most athletic,” Jackie said. “You have a lot of people that don’t seem to fit into the team network, like a basketball or football team.
“The benefits are not necessarily immediate. They are very noticeable over time in what kids can gain in terms of attention, practicing respect and life skills we teach.”
A few of Jackie’s students, however, are also involved in athletics. Her daughter Madallyn is a martial artist and a member of the Lady Saints’ junior high volleyball team. Jacob Bennett is a black belt as well as an athlete on Wayne’s high school football team. Some evenings, after hurrying back from football practice, Bennet drives to Humeston in time for Taekwondo.
“Balance, flexibility and focus are probably the biggest,” Jackie said of the strength and conditioning benefits of Taekwondo. “It’s really small muscle control—in a lot of cases, the tiniest change in technique is all about muscle control. That can be applied in other sports, as well.
“For me, it’s the mental focus. Back when I first started, I’d gone through a rough spot in my life. That was the out. It was the thing I needed to get through a day, and when I came out on the other side, I didn’t have an issue with anger.”
If a martial artist practices in moderation, without excessive head trauma through sparring, studies have shown Taekwondo can improve brain function.
When she began her dojang, attendance was better than expected. She immediately had 17 students join.
For a while, the other side of the dojang was an insurance office. The building had once been a restaurant. When the opportunity arose to buy the office, that section became a fitness center, which they operate as a non-profit run through the city
Jackie is also in her third year of teaching in Chariton, where she expanded in 2014. Currently, she has 19 Chariton students and 25 Humeston center students.
“It’s a pretty good number for a small town,” Jackie said.
After working at the Humeston Public Library for 12 years, Jackie decided to dedicate most of her time to the dojang.
“A few years ago, I was pouring too much of my time into the club, and that was too much on the family. We determined together that two nights a week is just right.”
Jackie holds her classes on Mondays and Thursdays in the evenings.
“Eight years later, I’m still getting the hang of the business side,” Jackie said. “It’s tough, because we need to charge a fair price—not only for the customer, but for the value of my instruction.”
“When she started out, we talked about pricing and marketing,” Bob said. “I probably suggested more aggressive plans. It worked out alright because of the market we have here, and being able to build a following.”
Despite having a fourth-degree black belt for a wife, Bob does not practice Taekwondo.
“For the record, I would train him if he wanted me to,” Jackie said.
“This is her thing,” Bob said. “I don’t want to impede upon it. I respect her for it, and I’m proud of all the effort she’s put into it. She can go on-and-on about Taekwondo, and I can go on-and-on about ag technology and soil fertility, and with those things we both put each other to sleep at night.”