In tropical Honolulu, Donn Lewin surveys his 11,000 square feet of property, which grows more valuable by the day. His personal gym rivals any professional set-up on the island. His son is a corporate vice president at Microsoft, and his daughter is in nursing. Commanding officers make a big deal of him whenever he visits the Marine Corps Base in Kaneohe.
“Not bad for a guy from Buffalo with no education,” he laughed.
Three Purple Hearts, 33 years as a wrestler, and untold schools of tropical fish later, Lewin, 78, is living a comfortable retirement in the Aloha State, where he stays on top of current events and battles aches and pains from hitting the mat against everyone from Dr. Jerry Graham to Andre the Giant.
And he’s certainly entitled to enjoy the retirement, even if he muses that he might have been better off physically had he stayed in the Marine Corps. “Boy, I get out of bed in the morning and I sure feel that way,” Lewin said. “But at least I’m getting out of bed in Hawaii.”
A native of Buffalo, Lewin is one of three wrestling brothers. “Maniac” Mark Lewin was an enigma during his career, even to his family, while younger brother Ted became a noted author and illustrator of children’s books.
Born in 1926, Lewin left Lafayette High School at 15 to join the Marine Corps and landed as a teenager in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He earned three Purple Hearts in combat, and fought at both Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. But it was at Guam that war struck home.
“I got pretty banged up at Iwo, but I was in the third or fourth wave [of the invasion] there,” he said. “I was in the first wave at Guam. We had approximately 250 men in my combat unit when we landed. By noon, we had 147 left.”
Had he had a bit more schooling, the wrestling world might have been deprived of Lewin’s skills. He was discharged from the service as an admiral’s orderly, a good position, but was interested in being a warrant officer. “Being a warrant officer was like being a god,” he said. “But I couldn’t do it back then. Instead, I went into wrestling.”
Though he had no amateur background – “just some scuffling around in the military” – Lewin caught on quickly with the help of old-timer Jim Henry. At 6-4 and 235 pounds, he had the size to make it in the ring, and Henry taught him the rest. Lewin wrestled in Buffalo in 1950 and spent some of his early time in Ontario before heading to the wrestling mecca of Southern California the following year. Lewin also was a fixture in the Capitol Sports Promotion in the pre-WWWF days, occasionally tagging with his teenage brother Ted.
By far, his favorite territory was the Columbus, Ohio circuit run by Al Haft in the 1950s. Although Columbus was not a large city, Haft’s reach extended into the east and south, making it the biggest – and best-paying – promotion of its era. The fact that Haft’s wife was from Lewin’s hometown of Buffalo didn’t hurt either.
“I wrestled there for a year and I didn’t even get to wrestle in all the places he promoted,” Lewin said.
“One night, we’re in a little town in Ohio, and there’s only about six people there. I was watching the money, and Al said, ‘Where’s the money?’ I said, ‘There wasn’t anybody there.’ He just said, ‘Well, that’s not your fault. You just take the money.’ Eighty to 90 percent of the promoters were ex-wrestlers and they were out to screw everybody else, but Al Haft, he was one of the nicest ones.”
In 1969, when the National Wrestling Federation formed in New York and Ohio, promoter Pedro Martinez asked Lewin to don a mask for the first time in his career. At first, Lewin balked at becoming The Executioner. But he had wrestled under his real identity in Buffalo in the 1950s and 1960s, and was ready for a change of pace.
“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said. “I could go anywhere and do anything and nobody would recognize me. So when my kids were older and I needed to be around town a little bit, that was a great thing.”
As The Executioner, Lewin was a fixture in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. He also mentored a young Greg Valentine, son of the legendary Johnny Valentine. Greg Valentine wrestled as Johnny Fargo in the NWF, and both teamed and feuded with Lewin.
“The old man didn’t want anything to do with it because he didn’t want people to know he had a son that old … even though Greg was the spitting image of Johnny. I mean, you can’t fool the fans that much,” Lewin said with a chuckle. “So the kid came to me and he was my partner for the longest time.”
With the demands of wrestling travel, Lewin was going through new cars like a thresher through wheat, logging 80,000-100,00 miles per year. Combined with the growing bills for his family, and the road expenses that he incurred while wrestling, he was looking for a way to supplement his income.
Enter Donn Lewin, ichthyologist.
It started innocently enough – a basic 30-gallon aquarium tank in the basement of his home in Tonawanda, N.Y. Before he exited the business of breeding rare and tropical fish, Lewin was pulling in an additional $80,00-100,000 annually, fulfilling the needs of 15-18 stores, and establishing himself as an expert in the field.
“It was really a lark,” he said. “We had one of those dining room tables that pulls out and we put the tank on the table so the kids and I could see it. One day, we’re watching a pair of angels and I saw the female had laid some eggs on a leaf. I figured, ‘Well, what the heck. Let’s try it.’ I hatched them artificially, and from when I did that, I ended up with 200 fish tanks in the basement.”
A friend built custom racks for the operation, which grew to include alligators and piranhas – “I wasn’t supposed to have those,” he said in a hushed tone. While Buffalo had two other fish providers, Lewin’s shop was rent-free, and he was able to write off business expenses.
“I got so inside, I had dealers all around the East Coast call me up for one reason or another. You know, I didn’t study it in the sense of going to college, but it just seemed like I absorbed everything about the business. Finally, I said, ‘That’s it; I’ve been up to my elbows in water for 18 years. I’m going to Hawaii.”
First, he had to call a halt to the other part of his dual life. Lewin was booked in Ontario for promoter Frank Tunney in a handicap match with Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer against Andre the Giant. “I went in the dressing room and I told Tunney, ‘I’m leaving after tonight. I’m retiring.’ He said, ‘What about these other bookings?’ I said, ‘I’m going to Hawaii.’ He said, ‘Oh, good, have fun.’ ”
Wrestling was not entirely out of the Lewin family’s blood. Lewin’s son, Dan’l, a graduate of Princeton, worked a few matches in Canada before wisely turning to a career at Apple and later Microsoft. “I couldn’t believe it when he told me he wanted to wrestle. I said, ‘What the hell would you want to do that for?’ So I took him up to Canada for 3-4 matches and he saw the light.”
Life is still painful for the wrestler-turned-fish breeder. He has two metal hips, three operations on his back, six on his shoulders … it’s easy to lose count. He also is being checked out for a painful narrowing of the spine. “None of that was from the war. It was all from wrestling.”
So when he is shown off at the local Marine base as a survivor of Guam and Iwo Jima – to his modest embarrassment – it’s understandable if he reflects on how his life might have taken another direction. “Ah, I probably should have stayed in the Marines.”
But just as quickly, he checked his thoughts. “When you’re 19, 20 years old, what do you know? Look, I made a good living. I saw the world and I got paid to see it. I lived top cabin for 33 years. Not too bad.”