Local senior bowlers still throwing strikes after nine decades

Howard Gabel might not necessarily turn heads with his current bowling average of 151, but his knack for rolling difficult spares does.

Not to mention that he’s 90 years old.

Gabel blends right in with the mass of some 50 senior bowlers crowding the floor on a recent Wednesday morning at Linn Lanes’ weekly Spare Timers session.

According to Penny Fentiman, Linn Lanes’ league coordinator, the bowling alley draws 100 seniors 65 or over in an average week to its three senior leagues on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

“We have a lot of bowlers in their 70s and 80s,” she said. Nearly one-third of the association’s total membership fall in the senior age category, she said.

Amid the whoops and high-fives and the constant kidding among people who obviously know each other well and enjoy being there, Gabel sits quietly, waiting for his turn to bowl.

Dave Draper, bowling the next lane over, sidles over to caution a visitor that Gabel’s low-key demeanor may be a little deceiving.

“When it comes to tournament time, this guy steps up to the plate,” Draper says. “He’s won more tournaments than anything. He’s pretty competitive.”

As if to prove it, Gabel takes his second throw after his first, a “fast eight,” leaves the 6 and 10 pins, a shot requiring precise placement. Somewhat gingerly he walks to the line, pauses, then slowly but smoothly delivers the ball, nailing the spare and drawing applause from his own group and some in adjoining lanes.

“This guy can pick spares,” says nearby bowler Jim Pitts of Lebanon. “He can’t walk very good, but he can out-bowl a lot of people. He comes from behind and wins.”

Fentiman confirmed Gabel’s penchant for competitive bowling, noting how he’d qualified last year to represent Oregon in a senior tournament in Las Vegas.

“He actually finished ninth in his age division. He was all mad at himself. He had one bad game and it cost him.

At the other end of the building, Virginia Lester sits, watching the action and clearly unhappy that she’s not out there.

VIRGINIA LESTER, the oldest league bowler at Linn Lanes, is a regular.

A nerve in her back is acting up and Lester’s decided not to push it today.

“I really wanted to bowl this year, but then I had this thing come up,” says Lester, who turned 92 on April 2.

Fentiman said the bowling alley actually has four bowlers 90 or older currently, Gabel and Lester of Lebanon and two from Sweet Home, though one, Betty Simon, is out of action while recovering from two broken arms after a fall on ice earlier this year.

“We’ve had bowlers over 90 before but I think this is the first time we’ve had four at the same time,” Fentiman said.

Lester’s been bowling since she was a teenager working as a welder in the shipyards in Portland during World War II.

“I worked swing shift. I would get off and go to the theater, which were open 24 hours a day.

“There was not much to do. We had to make our own fun. I played golf and bowled.”

Raised on a farm in the unincorporated community of Lookingglass, outside Roseburg, Lester said she always liked sports, playing volleyball and softball, which were among the few sports available to girls in those days at Lookingglass School.

“We didn’t have a lot of choice,” she said, noting that she played at Drain High School as a senior.

“I love all kinds of sports.”

She spent much of her adult life on ranches raising cattle and horses, most recently in Brownsville before she moved to Lebanon.

She continued bowling through those years and until recently regularly participated twice a week in leagues.

Her highest score ever over the years has been 297 – twice.

“One spare” away from a perfect game.

Gary Heintzman, who celebrated his 40th year as proprietor of Linn Lanes in January, said the seniors are “my favorite part of the business.”

He said he’s known most of the morning bowlers for decades and the seniors make up a large part of the establishment’s business.

“A lot of them have become really good friends,” Heintzman said, noting that bowling is a “good, healthy sport,” more so, due to the ban on smoking inside, he added.

“It gets seniors out and gives them exercise and they get to socialize.”

It’s pretty obvious to an observer that the seniors just seem to enjoy their time at the bowling center.

“A lot of them, their attitude on life is they just kind of take one day at a time,” Fentiman said. “It comes and goes and they just take it as it is.

“It’s an inspiration, to know you can keep bowling for a long time. One thing about bowling, it’s sport for a little kid to an older person.”

Gabel said he didn’t really compete in athletics until he began bowling in 1957 when he worked at Cascade Plywood and his foreman told him they needed one more guy for their team.

He’d grown up in Bismark, N.D. in a farm family, spending his free time as a youth in that occupation.

“I loved to farm.”

Gabel discovered Oregon when he served at Camp Adair and, when he was discharged in 1945, his family moved to Lebanon.

“I thought, ‘Boy, this is the prettiest place I ever saw,’” he said.

His initial stint as a bowler lasted three years; then he switched to square dancing.

He came back to the sport 20 years ago after retiring as an electrician, at the behest of his daughter, Carolyn Weigel, who lives in Albany but also bowls at Linn Lanes.

“She got me started.”

Both he and Lester said they enjoy the social interaction of the league.

“I come down here to exercise and socialize,” Lester said. “If I happen to bowl a great game, I’m really pleased. But it’s the people.”

She said she often bowls with her daughter, Diane Castro of Lebanon.

Fellow bowler Cheryl Mendel of Lebanon walked over and said, “She’s a great lady. I’ve bowled with her for 20 or 30 years.”

Gabel also takes a relaxed – seemingly, anyway – approach to the sport.

“The highest I’ve ever bowled is 245,” he said. “That was the first day of the season. I kept going down after that.”

He said he’s learned the sport from others.

“I’ve watched better bowlers. Penny’s helped me. I’ve learned a lot.”

For more information on the bowling leagues at Linn Lanes, contact Fentiman at (541) 451-3900.