CLEARWATER — Walter Evans was just a kid the first time karate saved his life.
His mother was an alcoholic who tried to take her own life several times, he said, and his father was not around. But Evans quickly picked up the skills to become an excellent fighter, winning trophies and prize money and admiration that helped him survive a harrowing childhood.
Now 67, he has the toned body of a teenager, with long, muscled legs that can kick powerfully over his head and calloused knuckles that can punch concrete slabs without so much as a scratch on his skin. He teaches multiple classes of kids, mentors special cases and also instructs adults on self-defense and martial arts across the Tampa Bay area.
At a recent lesson at Academy Prep in St. Petersburg, five students stood with their toes at the edge of a mat as Evans barked the command “side fall.” They fell in perfect alignment, dropping their bodies to the soft mat and just as quickly snapping back up into place, shoulder to shoulder.
Asked how anyone could get more than two kids to follow rules for jiujitsu falls like that, he said, “You aren’t yelling enough.”
“He is mean, but it’s not hard,” said Arion Hering, 9, who takes Evans’ class at the Clearwater YMCA. “He’s kind of funny, too, and he has the worst jokes.”
Evans now steps in as a father figure for numerous kids, just as his first mentors did. He brings juice and snacks to some of the toughest housing projects in Pinellas County, where he said he finds his “best students.”
“You never forget your first karate instructor,” Evans said.
Terry Jones, the executive director of the Clearwater Neighborhood Family Center located within the YMCA, said Evans has stood out as a popular figure for both parents and kids.
“They call him sensei, and they look up to him. Even though he’s tough they know that he loves them because he tells them, ‘I want you to be persistent and tough,’ ” Jones said. “He always tells them this is not a weapon, we are teaching you defense.”
The toughest kids make the best students, Evans said.
“I give them something they didn’t have that they couldn’t find in the projects,” Evans said. “They are similar to me. There’s a similar story. I’m seeing how they are coming up. I just want to give them a running chance.”
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Evans only met his father once. At the age of 7, his father made arrangements to meet with him and they spent a few hours visiting in a parking lot in his dad’s pickup truck. Evans was in foster care at this point, while his mother was dealing with substance abuse issues, he said. Soon after, he went to live with his mother again, and he said she moved them around to keep him away from his father.
Growing up in New York and Connecticut, his first instructor was martial arts pioneer Moses Powell, one of the first Black Americans to instruct the FBI and the Secret Service in martial arts. Powell later went on to train movie star Wesley Snipes. Powell’s protege was the legendary Li’l John Davis, an undefeated fighting champion who was like a big brother to Evans. Evans became the best fighter under Davis’ tutelage.
Those two instructors introduced Evans to their mentor, Florendo M. Visitacion, also known as “Grand Professor Vee.” He is credited as the Filipino founder of the Vee-Jitsu system, which combines several styles of martial arts and applies them effectively in any given situation. Rather than training, he offered “spiritual” guidance, Evans said.
Grand Professor Vee was known to say, “The truly powerful are those who are also restrained.” That’s a lesson that Evans teaches to his many students at community centers, schools, preschools and summer camps. “Each one, teach one” is one of his mottoes.
“I’m trying to be that father figure and big brother figure that helped me so much, but it’s just a pleasure to watch them grow,” he said. “I don’t train to just kick and punch, I train them to be leaders.”
In a tumultuous childhood, finding karate was “my savior,” Evans said.
The resurgence of martial arts movies in the 1970s resonated with him, like it did with many Black people in America, he said. He was drawn to the popular kung fu movies and magazines of the time, and felt solidarity with the nonwhite actors depicted.
“We recognized the need to defend ourselves and also fight back,” Evans said. “Those kung fu movies felt like a representation.”
If he could learn the skills portrayed by Jim Kelly, the Black actor who played opposite Bruce Lee in 1973′s “Enter the Dragon,” Evans felt like he would have an edge on the street, he said.
He remembers when he was 11 years old, and a very tall teenage bully pushed him up against a car, likely looking to shake him down for money. Evans “did a move” and had the bully in a headlock with fingers in his eyes, a move he learned in jiujitsu class.
Evans excelled in martial arts tournaments and in the late 1990s worked in movies, such as “Snake Eyes” with Nicolas Cage, in which he was an extra and helped with stunt work. Around 2000, with his fighting career waning and the movie career not panning out, he moved to Florida and dedicated his time to youth in the community.
He began teaching at numerous public schools and after-school programs such as the James B. Sanderlin Family Center, Childs Park YMCA and Citizens Alliance for Progress in Tarpon Springs, plus many businesses, libraries and schools in the Tampa Bay area.
His troubled childhood still haunts him. His mother tried to abort him, he said, by swallowing pills and alcohol. As a result, he was born with severe asthma and glomerulonephritis, which affects his kidneys. He spent years getting injections and treatment for his kidneys, to the point that he still has bulging spots on his arms from the ports put in place.
He got on the list for a kidney transplant in 2009, getting a call after a few months that his tissues were a match for a 3-year-old who had recently drowned in Tampa. The tissue type was so close, Evans has had to take just two anti-rejection pills daily since the surgery.
His doctor told Tampa General Hospital that Evans would be the best candidate because his lab work was consistently perfect.
“I was doing exercises and training. I was eating right. They don’t want to give you a kidney transplant if your blood work is bad or if you are drinking. So I was a perfect candidate,” he said.
“Karate once again saved my life.”