There’s a scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke arrives at Yoda’s hut and asks him to begin Jedi training. Yoda, unimpressed, delivers the following monologue:
“Ready are you? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained. A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away … to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless.”
For nearly four decades, Star Wars has remained one of the largest, most profitable and most influential franchises to date (as of April 2015, the Star Wars franchise grossed more than $4 billion in box office sales, nearly the same in DVD sales, $3 billion or so in video game sales, and $12 billion in toy sales).
It’s a big deal.
For some, it’s an escape from reality. For others, it’s a passion. And for a few, it’s a way of life.
Meet Master Will: founder and leader of Jedi Academy of North Florida — a group of Star Wars devotees fighting for peace and justice in the Galactic Republic, or at least within this earthly region.
Born in the Caribbean and raised in Seattle, Master Will and his wife came to Jacksonville about 16 years ago to raise their three children. He’s been leading the Jedi Academy for a little over two years. Currently in the middle of a lawsuit as the result of a work-related injury, Master Will doesn’t want us to use his real name. Or his age. Or a photo of him.
Adding this confluence of circumstances to an already insular and mysterious follower of the Jedi made Master Will a tough egg to crack. So like that famous scene in A New Hope, where Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and Chewbacca have to find their way out of a trash compactor, Folio Weekly got creative. In the end, it was the people around him — his disciples, if you will — who provided the most insight into the mind of the Northeast Florida Jedi Master.
It’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday in late May at 9A/Baymeadows Regional Park. And it’s hot. The sun’s beating down on a set of bleachers where Vicki Sincoff has gathered with her husband, Ethan, son, Tobin, and her mother who’s visiting from Pennsylvania.
Young Tobin, a Jedi in training, is playing a videogame on his mom’s phone — awaiting training to begin — and sipping from a blue Powerade.
It’s only his fourth month as a member of the Jedi Academy of North Florida, but the family is already delighted with the results.
“He has my nerdy tendencies,” says Vicki, mother of six-and-a-half-year-old Tobin. “So finding an extracurricular activity that he enjoys has been difficult. He’s not really into organized sports, despite being very physically active. We tried Tae Kwon Do, but he wasn’t into it. When I took him to Jedi training the first time, he took to it like a duck to water.”
She continues, “All credit to the Masters. He’s not the most attentive kid, but they are so loving and patient with him, and that makes him want to do well and make
Another dozen or so Jedi Masters, trainees and family members make their way to the bleachers. Practice is about to begin. Master Will introduces himself and gives a quick background on the Academy and what it takes to ascend the ranks.
“A lot of things have contributed to me doing it. Within the last three years, I’ve had a lot more time on my hands,” he says, alluding to the injury that left him unable to work. “It’s given me the opportunity to focus like I’ve been wanting to focus on it. It’s also been almost physical therapy for me.”
A few years ago, Master Will, a longtime Star Wars enthusiast, attended MegaCon in Orlando with a friend. He went dressed as Mace Windu (portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson in the prequel films), and felt an instant connection back into the world that he’d loved growing up.
He came home pumped about reigniting his passion for all things Force-related.
In 2013, Master Will established the Jedi Academy of North Florida, which currently boasts 20 active members.
“Shortly after my dad returned from his first convention as Mace Windu, it wasn’t long before a fire started to burn within me,” explains Master Will’s youngest son, Dakota. “I immediately began looking for a Jedi who not only fit my build and physical appearance but also my personality,” explains Dakota.
Dakota, age 23, is second in leadership at JANF and goes by Master Kota. He’s been training for nearly three years and is also an instructor, helping to shape Padawans and Initiates — terms used to describe those in the beginning stages of instruction — like Tobin.
“The reason I continue to train is because I love pushing my physical, mental, and spiritual self to its breaking point,” says Dakota. “Whether it be in the way I perform, my affect on the crowd or even the way I carry myself as a Master is only as limited as I believe it to be and I don’t believe in limitations.”
So what exactly is a Jedi Master, and how do you become one?
According to Star Wars: The Jedi Path: A Manual for Students of the Force, a 2011 book that the Jedi Academy of North Florida uses as a text:
“Like armies and governments, the Jedi Order follows a hierarchy to aid in the flow of command. Though we are all equals in the Force, the more senior members offer an expertise that deserves respect by those who have not yet achieved such a station.”
The book goes on to explain the ranks thusly: Jedi Initiate, Jedi Padawan, Jedi Knight and Jedi Master.
“Initiates and Padawans have to study the book and are given an exam covering those chapters. Once they pass, they go on to Knights and then Masters,” Master Will explains. “So they have literature, they have to study. They have to know history and they have to know lightsaber techniques.”
Daniel Wallace is the author of “The Jedi Path” and several other Star Wars-themed books.
“The book contains a lot of lore and history that has been revealed about the Jedi in the movies and in spin-off sources like video games,” the Minneapolis-based Wallace wrote in an email. “But I also tried to create an overarching philosophy that felt authentic for an order of warrior-monks like the Jedi.”
Wallace says his work was originally requested by Lucasfilm and the book’s developer, Becker & Mayer. “Because I had written a number of Star Wars books previously, I collaborated with them in the early stages on what it might look like. We ended up with what is essentially a Jedi textbook, complete with handwritten notes in the margins from the book’s previous owners like Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker.”
He continues, “I’m glad and a bit relieved that the Jedi Academy of North Florida, who would probably be the toughest critics of a book like this, like and appreciate it.”
By now, more than a dozen members of JANF have gathered at the park located in southeast Jacksonville. It’s a diverse group with age, ethnicity and physical ability running the gamut.
Emily and Brian Parker (aka Master Em and Master Par-Bri Wiinn) have arrived with their three young children: William aka Padawan Dozer, 12, Antwan aka Padawan SpeedTwister, 8, and Lizzie aka Padawan Lizzie, 6.
“We met Master Will at a pop culture event at my husband’s work and he invited William and Antwan to come train with him and soon all became involved,” explains mother Emily, who has been training since December 2014. “We’re just a group who loves Star Wars and wanted to connect to it more.”
Emily understands that there may be individuals who find what her family does to be a bit odd.
“Although I haven’t encountered a lot of people suggesting that it’s silly, there are certainly those that don’t get it,” she says. “I just basically tell them how much fun the kids are having and how great it is for their self-confidence. And then go back to doing our thing.”
The Parker family has proved an integral part of the Jedi Academy of North Florida. Aside from weekly training, which is held every Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the park, they’ve also participated in recent events like Mandarin MiniCon and MegaCon.
At these gatherings, the family of five dresses in Star Wars garb of loose-fitting pants (sometimes skirts for the girls), cloaks, boots and a utility belt in hues of brown and off-white. In pairs, the trainees face off, demonstrating the lightsaber techniques that have taken months or years to learn.
“Watching grown men run around a field for three hours while they fight over a ball can seem ridiculous if looked at from that perspective,” says father Bill, referencing football. “We know that Star Wars is fiction. But, lessons about respect, harmony, and discipline have a practical use in life. And, no matter what anybody could ever say, lightsabers are cool.”
Monthly dues to become an active member of the Academy are only $10; the money is allocated toward refreshments at training sessions and to cover convention fees. For Master Will, seeing the enthusiasm, cohesion and camaraderie within a family unit like the Parkers is payment enough.
“After my accident, I thought, ‘What can I do to bring enjoyment back to my life? Let me hand this down to the next generation. Let me find something that will bring people together and have fun doing what we do,’” he says.
After a five-minute bow-in, the dozen Jedis are paired based on size and skill. Master Will instructs each duo to repeat certain lightsaber techniques in unison. The Masters execute them effortlessly. The Padawans struggle a bit.
“Training has become essential to achieve different levels of excellence, and what keeps me coming back is the workout routine and the shape it keeps me in,” says Sania, aka Master Gallia, Master Will’s 16-year-old daughter. “It also increases my endurance, stamina and mental discipline.”
Sania, who has been training for more than two years, says that there’s a lot more to the Jedi Academy of North Florida than playing with laser swords. The group participates in a variety of charity events for diseases like spina bifida and lupus.
“’There is no ignorance, there is knowledge’ is one of our Oath quotes,” she explains. “To each their own, but you should first see what impact we have on sick kids, the disabled, terminally ill or just the little people who have an imagination or open mind. The smile we get from them and cheering up their day makes it all worth it.”
JANF isn’t the only Star Wars game in town. The First Coast is also home to Squad 7, which has 66 local members and is part of the statewide group The Florida Garrison, which fits under the international umbrella of 501st Legion.
According to the 501st’s charter, “The Legion seeks to promote interest in Star Wars through the building and wearing of quality costumes, and to facilitate the use of these costumes for Star Wars-related events as well as contributions to the local community through costumed charity and volunteer work.”
BJ Savage, a 40-year-old retired United States Air Force servicemember, has been an approved member of the 501st since October 2010. He has 28 Star Wars costumes, but typically dresses as a Stormtrooper since “kids love them so much.”
Savage also boasts a closetful of garb for an Imperial Officer, Biker Scout, Clone Trooper, Obi-Wan Kenobi, A-Wing Pilot, Sandtrooper, Emperor’s Royal Guard, Greedo, Imperial Navy Trooper, Imperial Gunner and many more.
“We appear upon request at any number of local events,” Savage says, referencing Walk Now for Autism Speaks, various March of Dimes benefits and visits to Wolfson Children’s Hospital. He continues, “The 501st Legion is more than just a club to play dress-up or raise money for charity. It’s a family with camaraderie I’ve not seen since I was in the military.”
Savage adds, “It’s a highly positive, uplifting way to get involved in costuming, the local community and to make great friends. My only regret is that I didn’t join sooner.”
No matter how elusive Master Will is, the impact he’s had on children, his own children and entire families is evident. After all, as Master Yoda would say (loosely translated, of course), it’s not a Jedi’s style to go seeking adventure or excitement or, if you’re the leader of the Jedi Academy of North Florida, praise and notoriety.
“The growth of it has actually been the most exciting,” Master Will says of JANF. “When I started the school, it was an idea that I had for it to be more than just building a skill. I wanted it to do something for people. I wanted it to be about what Jedis stand for: peace and justice.”