This may be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write in all my years in the wrestling business. After a long cry and tons of reflection, I am sad to announce that my adopted dad, and a close friend to so many of us fans in the wrestling business, Don Wilson passed away this past Tuesday in Cliff, New Mexico.
Born August 25, 1935 in Washington State, at a young age he became a lifelong wrestling fan, Moving to St. Louis in the early 1960s, he continued following his passion by becoming a fixture at the matches held at the Kiel Auditorium. It was from there, his involvement in the sport he loved started taking on new meaning.
Having met and becoming close friends with wrestlers “Dandy” Jack Donovan and wife Verne Bottoms, Don and his wife Judy started the popular Donovan’s Fan Club in 1967. In this era, fan clubs were all the rage to promote your favorite star via bulletins, fan mail and correspondence with other like fans from around the world. Don was on Cloud 9 when he was offered the job as Fan Club columnist for Wrestling Revue magazine.
In his monthly column, he listed the happenings and details of various clubs run by wrestling fans throughout the world. He gave expert advice and guidance on how to start and run a successful means to promote your favorite wrestler, or in some cases, a local territorial promotion. Through his column, he helped so many fans connect worldwide with news and views on the happenings of professional wrestling.
It was at this time saw the onset of a fan club convention, being coordinated by local fan club presidents, which were being held in the Midwest. I first met Don as an 11-year-old fan as I ventured down by Greyhound bus from my home base in Detroit to Cincinnati where the convention was being held in 1966. It was also at this function that I met another fan who was starting his career in the wrestling business, James Fanning, better known today as Hall of Famer Jimmy Valiant. We immediately bonded and began a lifelong friendship that weekend.
After attending a few more of these fan convention in the following years that were held in Detroit, Don became disillusioned by the way the functions were being run. The organizers were choosing among themselves who would be honored, who would get awards, by basically leaving the fans out of the voting process, and using them as only money-generating pawns. He garnered the idea of running a club run by the fans, for the fans and generating ground rules on how dedicated fans should treat the wrestling business, its performers and the promoters who run the shows.
Through Don’s foresight in the kayfabe era of professional wrestling, in 1968 he gathered a team of loyal fans and historians that formed the WFIA (Wrestling Fans International Association). The club quickly became popular not only with wrestling fans, but through dedicated efforts, with wrestlers and promoters themselves. Through its bi-monthly publication and its annual conventions held around the country. the association was able to show promoters around the world the importance of those who supported the great sport of wrestling. It also proved to them that some fans were not among the typical “marks” who attended their local shows, making them realize certain fans we so dedicated, they traveled from city to city, state to state, not only supporting and promoting their territory, but also the talent that worked within.
Don and the WFIA got the blessing and support from promoters such as Sam Muchnick, Fritz Von Erich, Abe Ford, The Sheik, Jerry Jarrett, Dick the Bruiser, Mike Lebell, Angelo Dundee, Gust Karras, Paul Jones, and Paul Boesch, all of whom welcomed wrestling fans from around the world to their host city for a WFIA convention.
Many wrestlers too numerous to mention were also huge supporters and believers in what the WFIA was successfully accomplishing. With the mantra of completing the perfect triangle for the sport of wrestling; that integrating the wrestlers, the promoters and the fans as one complete unit, Don headed the organization for many years before handing off the day-to-day duties to others who kept the club alive and well into the 1980s.
Through the success of the organization and his friendship with local promoter Sam Muchnick, Don was first offered the job with the St. Louis Wrestling Club as a second, the person who escorted the wrestlers to the ring and taking their ring gear back to the dressing room. Unlike other seconds, Don always went a step above and beyond by risking his own well being by escorting and protecting many of the heels who had to make the long and treacherous walk through the bloodthirsty and riled fans, up the ramp to the stage and back to the dressing room. Guys like Bobby Heenan, Blackjack Lanza, Baron von Raschke and Harley Race will testify that without Don’s help, they would have many more scars to show for their villainous efforts.
Later, he was also given the job as timekeeper at the Sunday TV tapings held at the Chase Hotel. When the Donovans had departed the St. Louis territory, Don disbanded the club to fully concentrate his efforts on the WFIA, along with his duties with the St. Louis promotion.
So generous were Don and his wife Judy, I began spending my summers away from home and school with them in St. Louis. It was also the gathering place for many of us from across the country on any given weekend during the year. Fans like Tom Burke from Springfield, Massachusetts, Diane Devine from Springfield, Missouri, Danny Goddard from Atlanta, Burton Cutler from Philadelphia, Bob Kubik from Pittsburgh and myself, would fly in, take in the Kiel wrestling show and flop anywhere we could find space at the Wilson household. We would talk, eat and breathe wrestling for the entire weekend with our pen pals and great friends.
In 1972, with the blessing of Sam Muchnick, Don was offered a job by Mike Lebell in Los Angeles, to come work for his promotion. Taking full advantage of the opportunity, the Wilsons moved to Tinseltown. So generous was Mr. Lebell, he let them live in one of his palatial homes in an upscale neighborhood. Once established, with the help of office mates Jeff Walton, Larry Korn, Jules Strongbow and Mr. Moto, Don began promoting spot shows, running the ticket office, setting up the ring, doing whatever was necessary to bring wrestling to the local towns. I was also fortunate, with The Sheik’s blessing, to go work with my good friend in the L.A. office for a few months, having the time of my life in the process.
In 1974, with the Los Angeles territory’s fortunes starting to dwindle, Don had the opportunity to start running a promotion of his own in Phoenix, Arizona. Jumping at the chance and hoping to further his career in the world of professional wrestling, he and his wife then moved on to the desert, hoping to make their own impact on the sport. Running shows at Phoenix’s own Madison Square Garden and using local talent, Don had all the tools to make a go of a good promotion. It was where a young skinny kid who I was friends with for many years, was given his first break in the wrestling business. Bill Laster, better known as Flying Bill or Big Bill Anderson, who forged a great career with the Don’s initial help.
It was at this time that Don asked if I would be willing to come out to Phoenix, knowing that I desperately wanted to work in the business as a manager. I was ready to jump at the chance but was warned by my present boss, The Sheik, that it was not a wise move. He must have had some hefty inside knowledge because Don’s fortunes were about to change drastically.
The story goes that even though nobody was promoting wrestling in Phoenix for many years prior to Don’s arrival, a certain promoter thought that it was still a part of his territory and that Don came in as a renegade promotion, unwelcome and without his consent. It was then this promoter sent down a few thugs, who confronted Don at gunpoint, and gave him an immediate ultimatum to either cease promoting or be doing so from six feet under. Don got the hint and moved on without a place to go or a clue as to what his next career move could possibly be.
The Wilsons soon found refuge one state over, settling in the small town of Cliff, New Mexico. Disillusioned with the entire wrestling business that was changing faster than a Don Fargo character, Don reversed gears and saw a need in an unlikely industry. He started a fire and safety business that he turned into a successful venture statewide.
Away from the limelight of wrestling, and with so many of us others who went on to different career paths, besides the occasional phone calls and letters, Don became wrapped up in his business, and gave up all things wrestling. It was then he had heard about the reunion of many of his former friends in the wrestling business, who would gather in Los Angeles for a day of food, frolic and fraternity. He began his long association with the Cauliflower Alley Club where once a year he could reconnect with his former colleagues.
When the CAC moved its yearly gathering to Las Vegas, many of us former WFIA members were happy to support the club, which gave us the opportunity to once again meet with lifelong friends, childhood heroes and those whom which we worked together in the wrestling business. It was always a joy to see Don at these reunions to talk old times, old shenanigans and share current news about our family and friends.
Over the last few years, Don’s health had started to decline, much in part to a broken back suffered years ago when a windstorm blew his car off the road and into a ditch. According to his wife, he went into the hospital a week ago and seemed to be doing much better from a bout with pneumonia. It was then he took a turn for the worse and was told by doctors that they could no longer do anything to improve his health. Refusing hospice care, he went back home, where after a few days, suffered life threatening casualties. His life was peacefully taken on March 22, 2016.
I cannot begin to tell you the impact my adopted father had on my life in professional wrestling, no less mentoring me as a young teenager to become the man I am today. He opened so many doors for me, taught me the true meaning of respect for the sport I love and those who shared the same passion as I. Many others who cherished him as a friend will testify to the same fact. Starting some 50 years ago, Don may never receive the proper credit or accolades for the way he forever changed the wrestling business. Not only for its fans he guided and helped along the way, but for the wrestlers and promoters, who during the kayfabe era were close minded to the benefits dedicated wrestling fans had to offer.
It is with a heavy heart, I offer a 10-bell salute, and if I can speak for wrestling fans worldwide, a much deserved standing ovation and heartfelt thank you for all you have done for us and the sport of professional wrestling. Rest in peace Don.