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Black Belt Granny Lucille Thompson Is Alive and Kicking at 90

updated 06/09/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tow" years ago Lucille Thompson was just another 88-year-old great-grandmother with time on her hands and arthritis in her fingers. The twice-widowed former speech writer was looking for a way to get more physical exercise when a couple of things happened that changed her life dramatically: Two elderly women were murdered in her Danville, Ill. neighborhood, and on a visit to the local senior center she saw her first demonstration of tae kwon do the Korean version of karate The next day Thompson presented herself at a nearby tae kwon do academy.

Her family's reaction was mixed. While her eldest daughter and all seven of her grandchildren were "tickled," her youngest daughter, 55, with whom she was living at the time, "tightened her jaws," Thompson remembers. "People thought I was nuts," she says. " 'You're the ones who are nuts,' I told 'em. 'You're gonna get older while I get younger.' "

Born in Iowa, the daughter of a Methodist minister, Thompson had a proper Victorian upbringing and "was never encouraged to do anything athletic." At 4'11" and 109 pounds when she signed on for martial arts she was hardly an imposing specimen. "At first when she kicked," says her teacher, Master Min Kyo Han, 49, "I had to support her." In a remarkable 20 months, the gray-haired granny earned a black belt—making her the oldest person ever to achieve one in tae kwon do—and a nickname: "Killer."

Thompson walks the streets without fear now. Her fingers are nimble and her back, which was beginning to hunch over, is as straight as a flagpole. A few months ago Thompson moved into a senior citizens' apartment complex located two blocks from the academy. Now a media darling who has broken up objects and audiences on programs like The Tonight Show, Thompson has even added name-dropping to her impressive Oriental arsenal. "Johnny Carson's very gentle," she reveals, "but when I yelled he really jumped."

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