John Bristow McDonough, 90, of Bustleton, a homicide detective with the Philadelphia Police Department, bodybuilder, musician, pilot and artist, died of leukemia Nov. 28 at Nazareth Hospital.

Born into poverty in a family of seven children in South Philadelphia, Mr. McDonough had to drop out of school in the eighth grade to help put food on the table. During the Depression, he learned the meaning of hard work while building bridges and roads in West Virginia with the Civilian Conservation Corps. He also beefed up his rather scrawny body by lifting weights.

In the late 1930s, Mr. McDonough joined the Navy and was stationed at Pearl Harbor. He was discharged two months before the Japanese attack in 1941.

"John always wanted to improve his life," said niece Helen Bevivino. "He finally reached the required weight, 135 pounds, and height, 5 feet, 7 inches, to join the Police Department in 1944." Mr. McDonough began as a beat officer in West Philadelphia and rose through the ranks to plainclothes homicide detective before retiring in 1969.

"He dressed impeccably," his niece said. "John was a fashion plate in tailored suits, hats, camel-hair overcoat. He looked like a detective."

In 1947, Mr. McDonough built a hall in West Philadelphia where more than 300 people danced on weekends to tunes on 78 rpm records. Soon he added McDonough's Gym to the front of the building and attracted athletes including a contender in the 1936 Olympics.

"John trained me and many others on free weights," said lifelong friend Stan Klett, a Philadelphia businessman. "I taught him to play the guitar."

Mr. McDonough married Leonora Delazzero in 1948 and built his bride a three-bedroom house at Veree and Welsh Roads in Bustleton. "He did everything himself, from the architecture to the building," his niece said. "It was amazing for a man with no formal training in construction."

In retirement, Mr. McDonough learned to draw in pencil and pen and ink and also earned a pilot's license. He flew a two-seater plane out of Northeast Airport.

For 10 years, Mr. McDonough was an investigator in security at Keystone Racetrack and he continued to lift weights. He placed second in the 60-64 age class at the Fellowship Club in Conshohocken when he hoisted 860 pounds. Mr. McDonough lifted weights until two years ago.

In addition to his niece, Mr. McDonough is survived by a brother, Thomas; and 100 nieces and nephews. His wife died in 1998.

A celebration of life will be held at a later date. Memorial donations may be made to Vitas Hospice, 1740 Walton Rd., Suite 100, Blue Bell, Pa. 19422.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.