By Nick BeJeaux
After decades of plying his skills and will to the betterment of his students, Baton Rouge’s Lou Illar is being inducted into The National Martial Arts Hall of Fame’s 2015 Hall of Heroes.
A 2010 inductee into the Hall of Fame itself, Illar says that the distinct honor he will receive on Sept 19 in Atlanta is reserved for those that have done “something significantly that enhances the lives of others through martial arts.”
His studio off of South Choctaw, the White Crane Kung Fu Studio, is known across the country – even the world – for producing skilled competitors. However, this is dwarfed by Illar’s contribution to the world of martial arts world by opening the door for martial artists with disabilities.
Always one for storytelling, Illar recalled the events of a life-changing moment he experienced when he was only 10 years old. He explains that as a young boy he worked at a country club in Pennsylvania, where he served as a caddy. One day, he was accompanying a golfer who was playing a game with an Indian friend. The group noticed a young boy with a clubfoot who was selling golf balls back to the golfers. The two golfers asked Illar about him; the next day he was nowhere to be seen.
“It was about 6 months before I saw that little boy again, but he was able to walk,” said Illar. “The Indian had done surgery on him and fixed his foot. That was heroism…real heroism.”
The act left a lasting impression on Illar, and this desire to help others was encouraged – required even – by his parents; especially his father.
“My father did it silently throughout his life,” he said. “He managed to get into three different kinds of ambulances organization and he would run an ambulance-for-disasters into the coal mines and pull people out of them when it was really dangerous.”
How Illar came to study Kung Fu is a story in of itself – suffice to say his father had a hand in that as well. But what’s important to know here is that he has come to use Kung Fu as a way to help those that cannot help themselves.
“I came here to Louisiana [in the ‘70s] and I was confronted with a fellow that was an exterminator,” said Illar. “He asked me about doing a show for kids with spina bifida. And so we did and we raised some money for them through that.”
Illar attempted to widen the involvement of these children in the world of martial arts, hoping to eventually host a tournament for them to compete. However, he quickly ran into obstacles, namely the culture within the world of martial arts at the time. Being a writer, Illar composed an article about the training and techniques he developed for disabled kids. He forwarded it to Inside Kung Fu Magazine, but their response was not what he imagined.
“They called me up and said their readers really only look at the pictures, and that they don’t want to see kids in wheelchairs doing martial arts,” said Illar.
Disappointed, Illar returned to teaching his students. But One day, he got a phone call. It was the new Editor in Chief at IKF and he really wanted to run the article.
“After all of that, things everywhere changed,” said Illar.
Today, Illar is grateful for the recognition, but the greatest reward he enjoys is within his students that have used Kung Fu to overcome their limitations. One of his best students, now an instructor in his studio, still grapples with spina bifida, but is none the less an impressive fighter.
“He was one of the best I ever trained and still continues to be,” Illar said.
Considering the success of his students, in spite of many of their limitations, Illar absolutely feels heroic.
“A hero is somebody – I think – who’s been specially blessed. I think I’ve been; that’s quite a blessing that you can help others. Because some day I found out that we all need help. We all need a hero.”