Don Bragg, a one-time star athlete at Penns Grove High and Villanova who won a gold medal in the pole vault at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, died Saturday night at age 83.

Nicknamed “Tarzan,” Mr. Bragg, a free spirit who became an author, actor, and poet, lived in northern California and died from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes, and a stroke, according to his nephew, Mike Stranahan.

A renaissance man, Mr. Bragg appeared in national commercials during his heyday, served as a motivational speaker, played the role of Tarzan in a movie that was never released because of litigation issues, owned a health club and kayak-rental outlet, operated an inner-city kids camp in the Pine Barrens – his friend, Muhammad Ali, whom he met when both won gold medals at the 1960 Olympics, used to make guest appearances -- and worked for the New Jersey governor’s office as a youth-recreation adviser.

He also once served as the athletic director at Stockton State College in Atlantic County.

“He had such a commanding presence,” Stranahan said. “When he would enter a room, his personality was almost bigger than life. He had this air of confidence and power. He was a great storyteller and so well-connected with his friendships with Ali” – known as Cassius Clay when they first met – “and [fitness guru] Jack LaLanne and so many others, and he never ran out of stories.”

Mr. Bragg, who stood 6-foot-3 and weighed close to 200 pounds when he became an Olympic champion, was a physical-fitness addict, his nephew said.

“He was a weight lifter and he would walk around on his hands all the time,” Stranahan said. “He and LaLanne would challenge each other on different things they could do, and my uncle thrived on those challenges. Donny used to make us do handstand push-ups all the time.”

Don Bragg clears the bar in the pole vault at a meet in 1959. He won the Olympic gold medal in 1960 in Rome.
Inquirer File Photograph
Don Bragg clears the bar in the pole vault at a meet in 1959. He won the Olympic gold medal in 1960 in Rome.

At the summer camp he operated, Mr. Bragg would tell intense stories about the Jersey devil and would have an area called Tarzanville – he built five Tarzan swings that caused campers to go from station to station if they navigated the course correctly.

“He would let out a Tarzan yell at camp at around midnight, and these kids would think it was the Jersey devil,” Stranahan said with a chuckle. “He was one of a kind.”

“All I want to do is try to make life a little less boring,” Mr. Bragg once told Sports Illustrated. “See, most people superficially float through their calendar.”

Mr. Bragg became a national figure when he won the pole vault at the Olympics by clearing 15 feet, 5 inches with an inflexible aluminum pole, which is now as outdated as an eight-track player.

He is survived by his wife Theresa, and four children: Renee, Mark, Tracey, and Jeff, along with numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Funeral services are incomplete.