With his steely stares, deliberate movements and no-nonsense persona, Charles Fields doesn't seem like the type of man children would flock to.
Nevertheless, there is a waiting list of admiring young people and their grateful parents eagerly wanting a cherished spot in his karate class.
Fields, a semi-retired licensed electrician, has been teaching martial arts for more than 26 years to children and youth, mostly in the inner city.
"I love young people, love teaching young people for one reason: they are like an empty cup," he said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
And into that cup Fields pours more than self-defense techniques. He adds dashes of respect, loads of discipline and liberal spoonfuls of honor.
Schools nowadays, he says, are like pats on the head. What children need is structure.
"Children regardless of their backgrounds or social economic status can grow strong with structure. The biggest problem they have is a lack of discipline."
That concept was drilled into his psyche by adults as he was growing up in the housing projects of Lexington's East End. He often played at the Charles Young Community Center and willingly answered the call in 2011 to serve on a task force charged with deciding the center's fate.
He now serves on the center's board of directors and holds two karate classes a week in the center's gym. Free of charge.
"What I want to do is reinforce support for the community," he said. "East End is my home and children are our future. We have to provide them a chance to be strong and we have to take responsibility for our community."
The center and the surrounding neighborhood did that for him and he wants to continue that tradition.
The Kentucky Historic Preservation Review Board recently approved the center for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service will make a final determination in two to three months.
Fields wants similar recognition and honor for the children in the surrounding neighborhood, which includes William Wells Brown Elementary School, a school needing to improve on its test scores.
Fields and others are starting a mentoring group for the neighborhood youth at Charles Young. He wants all of them to have a family-like grouping of support available when they need it.
"If a child has a problem, then we all can come together and talk about it," he said. Someone who has had the same or similar problem can talk with the child and help him or her get through it.
"It will be a beautiful thing when we get it all together," Fields said.
But his main focus now is martial arts.
In 1985, Fields had an asthmatic attack that took him to "death's door," he said. After three months, he felt so blessed to be back on his feet, he began learning and teaching under karate master William Johnson who had been in the Special Forces during Vietnam. Johnson left and asked him and others to continue the class.
"I owed him that," Fields said. "I refused to let the school die. He taught my kids for little or no money at all."
He continues to teach under the school's original name, Goju Shikwon Ryu.
"My instructor gave us the school and the charge to take the school and teach," he said. "I'll quit teaching before I change the name. That shows respect."
Fields is a grand master, teaching Matsubashi-Ryu (Shorin-Ryu), a style of Okinawan karate which originated in Okinawa, Japan, and is also influenced by techniques from China and Southeast Asia.
By his estimate, Fields has taught between 800 and 1,000 children. His son, Charlton Fields, is his assistant. He has taught in several venues but began teaching again at Charles Young soon after it reopened in 2012.
"It takes a year to build, a year to stabilize and another year to take off," Fields said of his school. "We are heading into our third year."
He also helps teach a class at Tates Creek Christian Church on Thursdays.
When he first started teaching, parents were a bit leery. But safety, he said, is a prerequisite.
Once they saw that, the word has spread quickly.
Eric Pfalzgraf's daughter Kaya, 7, is a student in the class. He said the class helps her to focus as well as release some of her energy generated by attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
"We've had her in soccer and she did well," he said. "She did OK in cheerleading.
"In karate, she has to learn to focus," Pfalzgraf said. "It is a little more discipline than other sports."
If the focus slips, Fields may have her doing push-ups, he said.
Sherrie Muhammad has had five children in Fields' class. She wants them to know some self-defense techniques as well as to have Fields reinforce self-discipline they will need.
"He has old-school values and reinforces what we give our children at home," Muhammad said.
Never once has she had an occasion to say his teaching went against their beliefs. "It's always like 'I love you, but I'm going to tell you what is right,'" she said. "They need to hear that, not just from their mom and dad."
Fields "is a part of our community and part of our village. He is a very important part of rearing our children," she said.
That's fine by Fields.
"One of my biggest joys is watching kids progress," he said.