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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Athaldo, Don (1894–1965)

by Richard White

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Don Athaldo (1894-1965), strongman, was born on 26 November 1894 at Condobolin, New South Wales, son of Frederick Horace George Lyons, a carpenter from Queensland, and his native-born wife Elizabeth, née Power, who died of tuberculosis soon afterwards. Named Walter Joseph, he was sickly and could not walk properly until aged 5. He later saw the strongman 'Dr Gordon' at Fitzgerald Bros' Circus, read about ancient Greece and built himself up by taking correspondence courses in physical culture.

Apprenticed to a blacksmith for five years, Lyons followed that trade and won repute as a circus strongman. In 1915-16 he served as a shoeing-smith corporal with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force at Rabaul, New Britain. Twice in 1916-17 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, only to be twice discharged as medically unfit. Rejoining the A.N. and M.E.F. in November 1917, he returned as a shoeing-smith corporal to Rabaul where, after briefly being discharged in 1919, he served until 1921. On 22 August that year he married Vera Elizabeth Stewart at the Warren Methodist Church, Marrickville. He resumed blacksmithing at Leichhardt, boxed for a time as a light-welterweight and was involved in numerous other sports.

Adopting the name 'Don Athaldo', in the 1920s he published Health, Strength & Muscular Power; a sequel, Meet Don Athaldo, followed. He made his reputation by spectacular demonstrations of strength and by his flair for showmanship. Probably his most famous feat was pulling a touring car with six passengers more than half-a-mile (805 m) up the hill in William Street, Sydney, to Kings Cross. His recovery from various ailments with 'self-cures' became part of the weakling-to-he-man story that he created for public consumption; his invented past included competitions in Leningrad and Tokyo, and a tally of 486 medals.

Athaldo's income derived from his gymnasium, from public exhibitions and above all from correspondence courses that preached physical fitness. His philosophy combined the idealized man of action with new concerns about health, masculine beauty and virility. Rejecting 'abnormal development' fostered by weight-lifting, he stressed diet, fresh air and 'dynamic tension', but was prepared to give his name to a line of body-building merchandise. 'Athalding', it was claimed, would overcome bad breath, bad habits, cancer, stammering, brain fag, virile weakness and pimples, while developing a pleasing personality and the Oriental secret of calmness.

Although only 5 ft 4 ins (163 cm) tall and weighing between 11 and 12 stone (70 and 76 kg), 'The Pocket Atlas' was debonair and dressed with style. When performing, he wore a leopard skin and leather ankle-boots. With a preference for large, red, American, convertible motorcars, he was something of a lady-killer and man about town. He also had an interest in stock-car racing. In January 1941 he understated his age to enlist in the Australian Military Forces as a physical-education instructor and was involved in recruiting. For a time he taught unarmed combat, but developed osteo-arthritis and was discharged medically unfit in 1944. During the war he and Vera separated.

Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died of a coronary occlusion on 24 May 1965 at his Ettalong home and was buried in the Catholic section of Botany cemetery. He had bequeathed his business to his secretary Catherine Thelma Nelson, with whom he had lived for many years, his car to a son-in-law, and £5 per week to his wife.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 1941, 20 Oct 1963, 27, 30 May 1965
  • Sun (Sydney), 15 May 1974
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard White, 'Athaldo, Don (1894–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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