About a dozen students dressed in white martial arts robes and colored belts made their way down into the basement of Burk Hall. Before stepping onto the blue mat, they bowed in respect to their instructor and the class begins.
Grandmaster Bill Dewart, an eighth-degree black belt who has been practicing taekwondo for 50 years, is not short on life experiences. He said he has taught Taekwondo in France, trained in the Shaolin Temple in China and served as a fan repellent for Bruce Lee at the 1969 All-American Open Taekwondo tournament. He later came to SF State in 2003 to teach taekwondo.
But for all he’s seen and done, he said his toughest opponent to date has been a bigger challenge that anything encountered on the mat. In the fall of 2001, Dewart was diagnosed with stage 4 skin cancer.
“When someone tells you you have cancer, you’re like, ‘I’m going to die,’” Dewart said. “I’m supposed to be dead, but I’m just too busy teaching.”
Dewart said he first remembers feeling alarmed when his nose started bleeding regularly. He said he visited a doctor hoping that the bleeding was from an injury he received while sparring. Deep down, Dewart said he knew something was seriously wrong.
“I was hoping, but I really knew better, and then she told me I had cancer,” Dewart said. “That’s a pretty big shock to your system.”
After getting opinions from three other doctors, Dewart had surgery three months after he was diagnosed to remove his nose and the tumors that were found inside. The surgery completely removed the cancer, according to Dewart.
“It was a pretty upsetting time in my life, but my martial arts training helped me deal with it,” Dewart said. “It kept me focused.”
He now lives with a prosthetic nose that he said his students are politely curious about. If questions arise, Dewart said he gladly tells them what happened.
A former captain of his college track team and semi-pro football player, Dewart said he has always loved being active and using his legs.
“Even with his age, he’s still able to kick my ass,” said biochemistry major and club member Jose Gonzalez. “He’s a huge inspiration to me to continue working harder and doing taekwondo.”
After starting his teaching career with a one-unit Taekwondo class at SF State, he said he decided to start the taekwondo club in 2007 to give his students a place to practice after taking the course.
“I realized that students had nowhere to go after they got their yellow belt,” Dewart said. “So I decided to start the club so that they could continue their training.”
The club is open to anyone from experienced fighters to beginners.
“This club is a good way to immerse yourself into a different culture,” said member and first-degree black belt Jim Sevilla. “You can try out something new and build really good habits and manners.”
On top of the taekwondo club, Dewart also teaches a two-unit self defense club and a one-unit taekwondo class. He also instructs at his own school, the Academy of Tae Kwon Do, where he has trained and taught since 1979.
“I’ve been doing this since 1965,” Dewart said. “If I didn’t do this, I’d have to get a real job – and I don’t want to have to do that.
Although he has been cancer-free for almost 15 years, Dewart said that his experience with cancer will be hard to forget, but he isn’t worried about it coming back.
“Fourteen years later and it’s not back, so they consider me cured,” Dewart said. “Now it’s always in the back of my mind, but I don’t worry about it at this point in time. I feel if it comes back, I’ll handle it again.”