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Destroyed dojo in Largo rises again, its spirit intact

The karate school Ric Martin built 26 years ago in Largo looked like a war zone last year.

Fire ripped through the attic. Gaping holes riddled the roof. Layers of wood, ashes and insulation coated the floor.

The morning the school caught fire, Martin and his daughter, Erica, 23, rushed to the school. They were with friends in Palm Harbor.

When they saw the burning building, Erica Martin, chief instructor at her father's Seminole school, hugged her dad and began to sob.

"Dad, you built this place," she said. "It's where I grew up."

He looked into her eyes and firmly held her shoulders.

"Erica, I built it once," said Martin, 55. "I can build it again."

• • •

Last week, masters and black belts from throughout the world visited Authentic Martial Arts school for a grand re-opening celebration. The school also honored public safety crews who tried to save the studio and volunteers who helped rebuild it.

Many of Martin's 200 students, especially the young ones, feared that the fire meant the end of their school.

"I just love this dojo and I was afraid we would have no more classes and nowhere to train," said Madi Hanna, 8, who has been recommended to test for black belt.

Taylor Denniston, a second-degree junior black belt, was one of more than 100 people who showed up the weekend after the fire.

"This place is my home away from home," said Taylor, 12, who has been taking classes for about six years. "I couldn't believe it after so many memories here."

Martin saw Taylor burst into tears. That impacted him more than anything else, he said.

"I saw how this was affecting other people," said Martin, an eighth-degree black belt in Okinawan Uechi-ryu, He focused on rebuilding. He knew he had to set an example. "I was being watched," he said.

Within a week, Martin rented out a 2,400-square-foot storefront across the street. It's the exact storefront where he taught classes in the early 1980s, before he bought his current dojo at 780 N Missouri Ave.

"We all just packed in there like sardines sometimes," said Mark Lewis, whose 10-year-old son, Logan, has been taking karate with Martin for a year.

• • •

Fire usually disrupts someone's home life or someone's business.

"In our case, it was both," Martin said.

The back door of the school leads right to his three-bedroom home, which he shares with his teenage daughters, Tori and Renee.

Thousands of gallons of water flooded the first floor of his home. The power was turned off. The whole building was condemned.

Martin had to balance his personal life and take care of the needs of his daughters while supervising the project and doing hands-on work everyday.

"It was like sprinting a marathon," he said.

A short in a wire from the dojo's neon sign likely started the fire. Damages to the 8,200-square-foot building were estimated at around $500,000. It cost more than that to rebuild the school and bring it into the 21st century, Martin said.

It took months to clear the debris and complete the engineering and permitting process. Construction started Feb. 1.

Martin left stuff like the wood framework to the professionals. But he and dozens of volunteers did much of the hands-on labor, including setting the windows, painting the building and installing fiber-cement siding outside

In many ways, the school, which sits on stilts over a pond, is like it was. The dojo still has red and white oak hardwood floors. And the training rooms, two on the first floor and one on the second, are in the same locations.

But there are a handful of updates. Family members can sit on leather couches and watch classes on five suspended flat screen TVs. There are now 18 flat screens throughout the building.

Upstairs, there's an indoor sparring room. But with the push of a button, the west wall lifts up, creating an outdoor training area.

"Everything went right," Martin said.

He returned home last month. Classes resumed May 24.

"I was ready to get back in this dojo," Taylor said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Destroyed dojo in Largo rises again, its spirit intact 06/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 9:41pm]
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