Donahue Wildman, Founder of Bally Total Fitness, Dies

Don Wildman, founder of Bally Total Fitness
(Photo by Michael Buckner / Getty Images.) Surfer Laird Hamilton (left) and musician Tim Commerford (right) were both friends of Bally Total Fitness founder Don Wildman (center), pictured at a film premiere in August 2007.

Donahue Wildman, the founder of Bally Total Fitness and a popular fitness personality for five decades, died on Sept. 17, according to a Facebook announcement by his family. He was 85.

Wildman died at his home in Malibu, California, after an extended battle with brain cancer, Club Insider reported.

Wildman grew up in Los Angeles and played football as a teenager, according to an April 2008 Esquire profile. He joined the United States Army in 1950 and served as a combat medic in the Korean War. After returning home, Wildman married and began working in health club pioneer Victor Tanny's Tanny Health Center in Burbank, California.

Wildman advanced in Tanny's company before branching off to found the Health and Tennis Corporation of America, which became one of the most popular American health club concepts during the tennis and racquetball craze of the 1970s and early 1980s. The company expanded to 200 locations before Wildman sold the business to Bally Entertainment Corp. in 1983.

In 1988, Wildman and Bally's Health and Tennis Corporation acquired U.S. Health from founder Frank Bond for $28.5 million, according to The New York Times.

Wildman stayed with the company—which later became Bally Total Fitness—until his retirement in 1994 at age 61.

(Bally was publicly traded and more than once reported over $1 billion in annual revenue until twice filing for bankruptcy in the mid-2000s. Bally sold the majority of its clubs to chains such as LA Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness before closing its final club in October 2016.)

In its 2008 profile, Esquire dubbed Wildman "The World’s Healthiest 75-Year-Old Man" —and the label stuck until his death. Wildman was known as an avid athlete and competitor. He won the Huntsman World Senior Games in 2008 and particpated in nine Ironman Triathlons, the Aspen downhill ski race as well as the New York and Los Angeles marathons, according to XPT.

In 2010, Wildman also co-founded GolfBoard, a company that produces electric-powered golf course scooters.

PTA Global/PTontheNet President Dr. Kevin Steel was a close friend and colleague of Wildman and told Club Industry that Wildman was an "energetic optimist."

"Don was the eternal optimist," Steele said. "He always found the silver lining and upside in every situation and always saw the good in people. No challenge was too big for the Wildman; in fact, the greater the challenge, the more Don was attracted to it and the better he performed. ... He loved essentially all forms of exercise, some more than others, such as resistance training and cardio, and rarely missed a workout. If he did, it was usually due to a travel day or an injury, which he still typically found a way around for some form of workout. His energy level was off the charts.

"Don parlayed his workouts into training for many different sports," Steel continued. "He was an incredibly accomplished athlete in multiple sports and disciplines. ... As great as the Wildman’s athletic ability was, he was also the kindest, most generous, loving person for his family and friends. He was an amazing leader, mentor and motivator that I am honored and blessed to have spent more than half of my life as his friend."

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