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Bobby Autry and student: Danny Fulgencio

Each generation has a slick fictional martial artist embedded in its popular culture — Chen Zhen, Mr. Miyagi, Beatrix Kiddo. But in real life, the sport is relatively down-to-earth, essential and utilitarian. Take Dallas Academy of Martial Arts in Lake Highlands, a taekwondo-rooted outfit. The boxy no-frills studio opened on Plano Road 16 years ago, long before the CrossFit craze made such spaces trendy. The owner, Bobby Autry, is an understated man with a head of thick white hair and a kind smile; he seems to listen more than talk. He says things like: “ ‘Sensei’ is the Japanese word for instructors, and ‘Xiansheng’ is the Chinese word, but I am from East Texas, so I call them ‘instructors.’ ”

His wife, Diane, works in the office, assisted by their 8-year-old daughter, Emily. It’s a sweet setup, but not how it was supposed to be. Some 10 years ago, Bobby retired and turned the operation over to his son, Shayne Autry. Shayne was the type you might find playing a badass in a Tarantino flick. Students recall his confidence, his sublime intuition and his cowboy hat. Over the past couple of years, Shayne suffered bouts of unexplained illness, his father says, but nothing that seemed too serious. Student Audrey Sequenzia says she sent Shayne Autry a text in early December: “Wanted to make sure you are feeling OK.” He responded that he was “better.” But on Dec. 18, when one of the other instructors went to check on the 37-year-old Shayne, she discovered his lifeless body.

Since he was 5 years old, Shayne Autry had been a constant presence at Dallas AMA, which first opened near its current location in 1980. “I stepped back and let him take over,” Bobby Autry says, when Shayne was about 28, after he became a master instructor.

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Bobby Autry: Danny Fulgencio

Sequenzia, a Lake Highlands High School grad, says that the first time she visited the studio and met Shayne, she knew the place was for her.

“I was always athletic, but after I had a baby, I really needed to find a way to get in shape, and I didn’t just want a gym membership,” she says. “As a teenager, I once was attacked. Because of that I had always considered learning some form of self-defense. But because of involvement in other sports, I never had time.”

When she met Shayne, she says, “he was like a magnet. I knew this was where I was meant to be — the students, the instructors, the art — I got this inspiration.”

That was two years ago, and she has been attending faithfully — four nights a week, three hours a night — ever since. The color of her belt progressed from white to yellow and eventually red . She expects to earn a black belt within the next few months.

“I am completely different. I feel in control and powerful. I really feel that I could physically defend myself.”

Max Sanders, a student of Bobby then Shayne Autry, was almost a black belt when a brain tumor and subsequent radiation in 2005 practically incapacitated him. The Autrys visited him in the hospital, he says, and when he returned to class months later, using a metal walker, Shayne Autry helped him with his recovery. Today, Sanders is working out with the intermediate class and appears physically strong. He attributes his comeback to both the exercise and the camaraderie.

Sequenzia and Sanders both say Shayne Autry played a key role — through his teaching — in strengthening their bodies, minds and spirits.

“He was our master,” Sequenzia says. “He was someone we looked up to and wanted to be like. He always seemed in-tune with each of us. If you were hurting one day, he could spot it right away. He was amazing. So, when he passed so suddenly, we were like: ‘What do we do now?’ The close-knit group of students and instructors reacted to Shayne’s death as they would have reacted to the loss of a close family member, Sequenzia recalls. There was shock and distress followed by logistical concerns. The business had been getting by, but with Shayne gone, there was a real chance that the studio would close.

Two weeks after his son’s death, the elder Autry called a member meeting. He told the group that he planned to return to work so that the studio could stay open.

The students were grateful; they understood the magnitude of the commitment. “Under such heartache, he decided to take back over the gym, which would require a lot of hard work,” Sequenzia notes. The instructors — Steve Campbell, Garvin Garcia, Bob Via and James Smith — and students rallied together to help paint, reorganize and spruce up the studio.

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Bobby and Shayne Autry

 “Shayne put together a terrific core of people here,” Bobby Autry says. “They are not just a staff [or members], but a community. And what’s great is that they are people from all walks of life who never would cross paths if not for this shared interest.”

With the help of the Dallas AMA community and his family, Bobby Autry has been able to sustain the business. In fact, the school has added kickboxing sessions, self defense workshops and circuit training, and classes are regularly filling. Parents steadily enroll youngsters in lessons that, according to students and instructors, increase fitness and balance, not to mention self-confidence and discipline.

Losing Shayne was a big blow to so many Lake Highlands families, Sequenzia says, but his dynamic influence lingers.

“It is still so hard to believe that he won’t be moseying on into the gym with his cowboy hat and bare feet, ready to show us his awesomeness,” she says. “But the things he taught me are always going to be with me. And now getting to learn from [Bobby] Autry — I am learning in a new way. It is such a privilege to have had them both as masters.” 

In order to get the most out of a martial arts program, call 214.343.3000 and set up a consultation. You can also visit a class anytime and/or attend a fitness or kickboxing session. Just prior to publication, the school announced a new series of self-defense workshops. The schedule is available at dallasama.com. The studio is located at 9644 Plano, at the Plano-Walnut Hill intersection.