"Do you know the meaning of the word can't?"
Denton resident and martial artist Alvin Mack tends toward the Socratic method in interviews.
The longtime karate instructor likes questions, and he's not an instructor who just teaches moves and techniques. Mack likes to make people think.
"When I was growing up there was no such thing as the word ain't. My grandmother used to smack me on the head every time I said that," he recalled. "She said, 'It isn't or it is not.' Now ain't is in the dictionary."
Mack was born in Temple. His father moved the family from Texas to the south side of Chicago when Mack was 8.
"I was always a cowboy," Mack said. "I wore cowboy boots, Wrangler blue jeans, Western shirts and a cowboy hat. When we moved to Chicago, I didn't change that. I was a Texan, and I was going to be who I was."
His clothing was probably at the root of some of the scuffles he got into in Chicago, Mack said.
Mack started studying martial arts in 1968, at age 18. In 1973, he turned his focus to Ed Parker kenpo karate — a form of kenpo karate characterized by the use of quick and powerful strikes. A serious student of the kenpo system, Mack was the undefeated lightweight champion of Europe from 1974-1976. He earned the Presidential Sports Award in 1977, and Grand Champion of the U.S. Golden Karate Championships the same year. He was inducted into the U.S. Martial Arts Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement and the Masters Hall of Fame in 2008.
His most recent award? The Presidential Champion Award for his dedication to fitness, sports and community engagement.
Mack said he grew to love martial arts because it blends discipline of the body with the sharpening of the mind. The martial arts taught him to master himself and carefully consider his intentions. He credits the martial arts for teaching him not to get emotional when someone slings fighting words at him (though he'll talk your ear off about the way people use words without understanding their literal meaning). Mack eventually had six children. He required all of them to take martial arts.
Mack joined the Denton Police Department in 1987 and served on the force until 1994, and then again from 2004 to 2005. In 1993, Mack responded to a double homicide. Denton teenagers Catherine "Cari" Crews and Jesus Garza — students Mack had worked with in their middle school years through the D.A.R.E. drug abuse resistance program — were shot to death. When that happened, Mack said he wanted to see law enforcement spend more of its resources on crime prevention.
Shortly after that, Mack left the police force to teach martial arts and self-defense full time. He's taught hundreds of rape prevention seminars. His bread and butter, though, is karate.
Mack teaches kenpo karate through his nonprofit organization, Universal Martial Arts Academy and Training Center, at Legacy Fitness & Gym in Denton. He keeps his classes inexpensive, he said, so that students won't be priced out of learning. He doesn't charge his students to take belt tests. The colored belts signify levels of mastery, and it's customary for teachers to charge a fee when students test.
His students who are still in school have to maintain a certain grade point average to be eligible for belt tests. He requires young students to bring progress reports from their teachers every three weeks. They have to do self evaluations.
"This isn't about punching and kicking, but also life skills," he said.
He has taught all ages, and Mack said his training is mostly about attitude.
"I'm not teaching them how to fight," Mack said. "I'm teaching them how to defend themselves and how to defend themselves within the scope of the law."
Mack said teaching karate isn't only about teaching the techniques of the form — the strikes, the kicks and dodges. It's just as much about teaching students to challenge their own assumptions.
"When I work with children, especially, they will sometimes get hung up on breaking a board, a piece of wood," Mack said. "They get hung up on hitting that board hard enough to break it. So what do I do? I teach them to hit through that board, to move past it. When they get that, they can break that board."
Mack has developed his training methods for 20 years, and he instills his students with a core understanding that Ed Parker kenpo karate is a discipline and a journey to discovering their limitations. And limitations teach students where their potential lies, he said.
"So many times, when you try something or think about something new, all you think about is what you can't do," he said. "How many times have you heard an adult tell a child, 'You can't do that' because of something? Well, you already know what I think about the word 'can't.'"