Amy J. Born
Jim Wann began studying martial arts as a little kid and it quickly became a passion that has lasted his entire life. He was raised by a single mom, and practiced at home with a punching bag he made himself from an Army surplus bag filled with clothes. He scavenged local construction sites for wooden boards of the right size and thickness that he could practice breaking with a hand or foot. He rode his bike even in the winter to get to classes. When he got a car, he basically lived at the school. He studied all the time and taught the younger, lower ranked kids in exchange for tuition. While in high school in the early 1970s, he started his own martial arts school and, after graduating, he brought that knowledge to Evergreen.
Jim grew up in Denver but, he said, he was always enamored with Evergreen. “I would ride my bike up here on the weekends, camp out in parks and practice martial arts,” he recalled. He moved here as soon as he could and started teaching martial arts classes while commuting to college in Boulder. He taught on the weekends in the gym of West Jeff Junior High (now West Jeff Middle School) in Conifer, but really needed the space three days a week. “I worked with the custodians to get an extra day,” he said, and he started using the gym at the junior high that was located where the Evergreen Library is now.
By the late 1970s, his classes had grown into a bona fide martial arts school in downtown Evergreen. Jim refers to martial arts as “exercise with a purpose.” He could see the positive effects the training had on the kids in terms of their confidence, integrity, perseverance and compassion for others. “I worked with the Jeffco school superintendent. We saw changes in the students you wouldn’t believe,” he said. Bullying became a non-issue for both the kids who had been bullied and the kids who were bullying others, Jim said. He challenged his students by, for example, taking them out on the ice at Evergreen Lake to practice jump kicks.
He also focused on self-defense classes for women, working in conjunction with the Jeffco Sheriff’s Department. He once recruited students to those classes by having a couple of advanced students pose as a girlfriend and her potentially abusive boyfriend having a heated argument at a local bar. As onlookers wondered if they should intervene, the woman expertly protected herself with a well-placed sidekick that left her “boyfriend” on the floor and the women in the crowd anxious to sign up!
Jim formed his own martial art that combines Taekwondo, which uses movements that are more linear, with Kung Fu, which is more circular. “I studied with Koreans and got my higher ranks of Black Belt. They acknowledged what I created,” he said.
In the 1980s, Jim moved the school to southwest Denver, though he and his wife, Beth, continued to live in Evergreen.
To earn extra money, Jim looked to his other passion: driving. He went to work driving school buses part time and training drivers in the summer. He became an instructor with Trailways Bus Lines, where he received national safety awards. He partnered with the owner of Minnie Rates Driving School in Denver and brought the business up to Evergreen. At first, he taught driving classes out of a local donut shop and built it up to a “really nice school” with three offices in the Front Range.
Jim’s idea was to apply martial arts’ principles (awareness, visualization, precision, confidence and control) to drivers’ education. He developed a program built around the martial arts’ concepts of self-defense to teach students how to drive accident-free for life. He also used frozen Georgetown Lake to teach defensive driving skills.
He continued practicing and teaching martial arts, but as Minnie Rates grew, it took most of his attention. It was the first school to have a business front (prior to that, driver education took place in the high schools) and the first to offer permit and driving tests. Jim thought that was a crazy idea when he first proposed the concept to the state regulators, but they let him try it. “It took a huge burden off them,” Jim explained. “Now, most driving schools offer testing.” In 2008, he sold the business and Minnie Rates became DriveSafe Driving Schools.
Throughout his 40-plus-year career, Jim has inspired thousands of kids to improve their lives through martial arts and has taught over 30,000 students how to drive “accident-free for life.” He still practices martial arts and is proud to have many Black Belts he’s trained teaching others around the country. In 2017, Jim earned his Ph.D. in philosophy and education.
Jim is about to release a book, “Journey of the White Tiger – From Master Martial Artist to Driver Education Pioneer,” that features many tales of his experiences with useful lessons that readers can apply to their own lives. It is especially helpful in providing new drivers an excellent educational foundation. The book also features another of Jim’s passions, nature photography. He specializes in photos taken “in the magic of the night,” and his award-winning photos appear throughout the book. For more information, Jim can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.