Click photo to enlarge
Bill Owens, center, wife Mary, left, and son Williams pose for a photograph with the "talking sticks" used in the African American martial art form known as Kusema Vijiti, at the Cascos Martial Art Academy, Monday, April 11, 2011 in Oakland, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

In the martial arts world, Bill Owens is a rock star.

Sifu (the master) Owens was one of 10 martial arts masters from the U.S. invited to Beijing, China, in 1985 to compete in the prestigious International Chinese Wushu Championships -- an Olympics of martial arts. For years, he was one of the top martial arts competitors in the world.

People have come from all over the world to train at Cascos Martial Arts in East Oakland -- a karate school that Owens runs with his wife, Mary, who is also a former champion black belt holder, affectionately known as "Simu" (teacher's wife).

One former student from Germany sent his son to stay with the Owenses. He felt confident the youth would be in good hands on his first trip to America.

Yet many people who live in the immediate Bay Area are afraid to set foot in Deep East Oakland because of its bad reputation. That negative image was cemented with the killing of four Oakland police officers by a parolee in March 2009. Two of the officers were fatally shot right across the street from the Cascos school on MacArthur Boulevard.

Since then, the Owenses have been struggling to keep Cascos afloat. Last month, Bayview Loan Services, which holds the mortgage on the building, moved to foreclose. Owens had taken out a loan to repair the roof and for his children's college education, but now he's $30,000 in arrears. On Aug. 26, Owens told students that he had no choice but to close.


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The announcement was a like a body blow to East Oakland, where Cascos has been a community institution for the last four decades.

Students, their parents, former students and community activists immediately began mobilizing to save the school. They held a news conference and bombarded the lender with phone calls, demanding they cancel the Sept. 11 sale date.

Student after student testified about how Cascos has remained a beacon of light as East Oakland grappled with economic hardship and violent crime. It is one of the few remaining safe places in this part of the city for youth to go where they can learn life-affirming skills in a safe environment.

There is no greater contrast than the youth hanging out on the corners on MacArthur Boulevard and those learning self-defense and mental discipline at a Cascos martial arts class. In a culture that glorifies violence, Owens teaches kids to use their minds rather than their fists.

"I can't even tell you how many students that he has prevented from going into anti-social behavior in East Oakland," says Robert Terrance, a student who is rallying to save the school. "Then there are the number of his students who have gone into law enforcement at all levels, from highway patrol to the sheriff's department to OPD to the FBI."

There are families who have studied under Owens for generations.

Terrance, a 58-year-old attorney, sent both of his now-adult children to Cascos. Now he brings his 12-year-old daughter. He makes the trek all the way from Santa Cruz.

Tjuana Smylie, 45, trained with Owens as a teen and later got her black belt. Now the West Oakland resident brings her teenage son for classes. She wants him to learn the same skills that helped her later in life -- discipline, self-control and confidence.

"I still drive my son to East Oakland and make the sacrifice because there is something really unique about the care that they put into it," Smylie says. "It's a labor of love for them."

That labor of love meant the Owenses didn't turn people away when they could no longer pay, which surely also led to their current financial difficulties.

Community pressure -- along with assistance from Assemblyman Sandre Swanson's office, which has been helping Owens negotiate with the lender -- has paid off for the time being. The lender agreed to postpone the sale date by 30 days.

Owens has until Oct. 11 to prove to the bank that he can sign up enough students for the next six months to cover the mortgage.

Owens says it's time for Cascos supporters to help him land at least 60 students. He is calling on the community to sponsor students, starting at $50 per month.

"I'm telling people I love you to death," Owens says. "But the banks don't take hugs."

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/tammerlin.