Sometimes when I meet a person whose face may not be famous but whose reputation is well known, I play a little game. I count the minutes it takes for them to make sure strangers know about who they are. The prize for the shortest time goes to a pastor who took no more than thirty seconds to assert his importance. Conversely, the winner of the all-time humility award in my little game is DTS adjunct professor, and my former coworker, Keith Yates.
It so happened that I had partnered with him on DTS’s flagship magazine Kindred Spirit for no fewer than three years before I found out about him. The big reveal happened like this. DTS had sent some of us who produced the school’s magazine—the director of marketing; Keith, our artist; and me, the editor in chief—to the Evangelical Press Association national meeting. As I recall, the city was Boston.
As we walked down the sidewalk to dinner, Keith—a gentleman—maneuvered himself to take the spot closest to the curb. I acknowledged his doing so by saying something like, “You want nearest the street so you can be the one to fight off bad guys, right?”
He nodded and shrugged modestly. So I asked, half-kidding, “You think you could take on some robbers?” Dead serious, he nodded again before conceding, “Unless they have guns.” “What are you, some kind of martial arts expert?” I asked, again, still half-joking. He nodded quietly. I stopped and stared. “No way.” I tried to imagine quiet, reserved Keith doing Jackie Chan moves. I didn’t see it. “Seriously?” The rest of the evening, I kept scrunching up my face and asking, “Really?” And, as it turned out, even in his big disclosure, Keith held back. Way back.
As the founder and president of the American Karate and Tae Kwon Do Organization, at the time Keith had written more than three hundred magazine articles and authored or coauthored numerous books. (Today the number stands at more than five hundred articles and twelve books.) For a while, he wrote a monthly column for Martial Arts Professional. And for years, he wrote the “Inside Tae Kwon Do” column for Inside Karate magazine—which described him once as one of America’s “pioneers” of karate. Additionally, Keith authored the children’s story, Young Samurai. More than twenty years earlier, he had received the title of state champion in Texas.
All this explains why Keith’s car license plate read (and still reads), “Sensei,” which in Japanese means “teacher”—and more specific to his context, also means “instructor in the martial arts.”
It was all true. Outside of the halls of DTS, the guy I referred to as “our designer” was known to many as “Grandmaster.”
Master of the Arts
At the camp Sky Ranch, where his parents sent Keith Yates, then ten years old, he received Christ as his Savior. In junior high, he took up martial arts training. In that same year, his local newspaper carried an article about how Keith had drawn cartoons on T-shirts and had sold them to classmates. His art skills led him to work as the cartoonist for his high school newspaper. And during those years, in 1968, Keith also earned his first black belt—at age seventeen—one of the youngest people in the country to do so. Since he was a brown belt, he’s taught martial arts continuously over the years—longer than practically anyone else in Texas.
Keith chose to pursue a fine arts degree at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, working for a print shop to help finance his education. And while at SMU, Keith decided to build a career in commercial art and design.
Both kinds of arts—martial and visual—drove him. The fact that Keith developed a reputation as a top practitioner of kata—the artistic side of martial arts—should come, then, as no surprise. “I gravitated toward the beauty of martial arts. Maybe that was my artistic side coming out,” Keith said. But his gift for teaching also continued to reveal itself. As the winner of several martial arts championships, Keith created a “karate for credit” program—the first person in the Southwestern US to do so. He did it at his first alma mater, serving for seven years as an adjunct professor at SMU in the Physical Education and Communications Departments.
After stints as an art director for an advertising agency and newspaper office, Keith wanted to design and create more than just ads for shaving cream and shoes. DTS hired him four decades ago, in 1978—the year Grease and Saturday Night Fever dominated the box office. His title? Assistant art director in what was then the Public Relations department.
After hours, Keith took seminary classes. And he graduated five years later as summa cum laude with his master of arts in Biblical Studies. His thesis topic: “The Demystification of Ki: The Spiritual Aspects of the Martial Arts.” Many people associate martial arts with Eastern Mysticism. But Keith asserts that the two are not essentially connected. In fact, he has made teaching Christian character a key element in his work as a martial arts instructor.
Master “to the Quiet Life”
When I arrived as a freelance editor of Kindred Spirit magazine, Keith had served at DTS for twenty years. Design awards the magazine had received from the International Association of Business Communicators, the Evangelical Press Association, and the Religion Communicators Council lined the halls. At national communications meetings, Keith shared his expertise in the arts with others eager to learn. And it happened to be at such a meeting where I received a more complete picture of him.
The apostle Paul instructs the Thessalonians to aspire to the quiet life (1 Thess 4:11). And Keith seems to have internalized that advice for himself. People reading of his accomplishments might have expected to meet a driven, take-charge sort of guy. But he slipped into meetings quietly, sketched as he listened, asked penetrating questions, supported his coworkers, and rarely talked about himself. Meanwhile, in another part of his life, Keith remained famous.
Once I clued in about his extracurricular activities, I made sure that when I entered his office to look at page layouts, I never walked up behind him unannounced. And I also noticed stuff like the sudden appearance of a photo of Keith with Chuck Norris. The explanation? In the late 1990s, he was part of the inaugural class of inductees into the Texas Martial Arts Hall of Fame in Waco, Texas—along with other notables such as his friend “Chuck.”
Master of His Calling
Not too many years passed before Keith received the honor as one of a few non-Asians in the world to hold a tenth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. What’s a tenth degree? It’s like a lifetime achievement award—a title granted only to martial artists who have given a lifetime to the furtherance of the martial arts. Only a handful of such black belts in the US exist.
But wait. There’s more.
After Keith mastered the art of Tae Kwon Do and had a successful tournament career, he earned black belts in Japanese Ju-Jitsu and Okinawan Kobudo, the art of ancient Asian weapons.
Yet to many of us who worked with him in the past, we have seen that he has not allowed his many honors to dictate his identity. His identity as a Christ-follower has driven him.
During some of the darkest days of Keith’s life, the intense discipline required in the martial arts helped him stay focused on Christ. And he turned around and used his skills as a door through which to enter the lives of others in need. “Grandmaster Yates” serves as chairman of the board of the Gospel Martial Arts Union and has often teamed up with Norris to use his martial-arts credibility as a platform for the gospel.
As his daughter, Regan, lay in a hospital room fighting for her life with a rare form of bone marrow failure (Severe Aplastic Anemia), we his coworkers watched helplessly. Daily this father of four somehow managed to show up on time for work, keep a pleasant demeanor, meet deadlines, weep, ask about our lives, and express his abiding faith in Christ and the Spirit’s sustaining power.
Years later Keith looked back on those days and said, “It was an overwhelming experience during which I had to rely totally on the Lord. One of the things martial arts teach beyond just ‘training hard’ is the attitude of never giving up no matter how difficult the task might be,” Keith continued. “We call that an ‘indomitable spirit.’ I would say that it is one of the greatest lessons I have learned—and that I try to teach—from white belt to black belt and beyond. Persevere.”
Master of Excellence
Keith’s accomplishments, both at DTS and in the martial arts field, have stemmed from a core commitment to excellence. For some years now, Keith has served as director of creative services and publications. As an adjunct professor, he also teaches the next generation of seminary students about Christianity and the arts. “Since God is the author of creativity,” Keith said, “God’s people should be the most creative—whether they are preaching, singing, or designing a brochure or newsletter.”
Throughout his years at DTS, Keith’s design eye has continued to bring awards. And indeed the long lists of honors stemming from Keith’s work as a visual artist are too numerous to list here. Most recently, the redesign of Kindred Spirit morphing it into DTS Magazine in 2015 brought more honors from EPA.
All these years, Keith has served with humility. The pro who makes time for beginning students—ranging in ages from seven to seventy—in the gym (a task most would cast off to junior instructors) also makes time to personalize instruction for his DTS students.
Parents of some of Keith’s martial arts students describe him as a person full of “goodness, knowledge, humility, and patience.” And that indomitable spirit has seen Keith through myriad transitions at DTS in the past forty years. His bosses have changed. Administrative structures have shifted. Procedures have developed. Design requirements, processes, and software have advanced. Job requirements have modified. His coworkers have transitioned, but Keith has flexed with humility. And whereas institutional settings are often creativity-squelching places for artists, Keith found ways to sharpen his creative edge throughout the decades he has served.
Master of Serving
DTS has helped train some famous people within Christendom and beyond. And Keith has helped tell their stories. His accomplishments, too, have brought him before people the world has deemed important. (There’s a saying circulating that while some people wear Superman pajamas, Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas.) Yet the only person whose name I have ever heard Keith Yates drop is the name of Jesus.
This June Keith plans to retire from DTS. He still has plenty to fill his days. He continues to have a thriving freelance practice and will work on putting the finishing touches on a 2018 edition of the Complete Book of Tae Kwon Do Forms that includes video examples and a smartphone app. He and his wife, Linda, also plan to travel to places they’ve talked about visiting.
The grandmaster’s four grown children—including the daughter who survived—gave him ten grandchildren with whom he looks forward to having more time to serve as a different kind of sensei. A grandfather.
Photography by David & Luke Edmonson.