WHITEFISH – After bowling another strike at the Pin & Cue, 72-year-old Marge Littlefield performs a graceful celebration jig and high fives her teammates. Then she embraces George Schrade, her soul mate, bowling partner and future husband.
It’s fitting for Schrade, 76, and Littlefield to spend their Thursday afternoons together amid the chorus of cracking bowling pins and whooping bowlers – they met at a bowling alley in Kalispell some 30 years ago. In that time, each of their spouses has passed away and the two have grown increasingly close. As Littlefield says: “We just haven’t tied the knot yet.”
“I never thought I could find anyone else because I was a widow for five years,” Littlefield said. “But life goes on. We’re enjoying it because life is too short not to.”
Indeed, enjoying life is a central theme for 52 elderly bowlers packed into the Pin & Cue. Thursday is their day – it’s senior league day. They holler and joke and dance. Some play poker in between shots. They bet nickels and dimes on frames. For these seniors, it’s a chance to get out of the house, see friends and, of course, bowl. They prove that bowling need not be a game of power or speed. Scores consistently soar over 200. The highest score in 2007 for men’s was 274 and for women’s was 221.
“Bowling is a lifetime sport and we prove it,” said Marlene Barnes, a league bowler. “Can you believe the scores?”
The senior league originated in Kalispell. When that bowling alley burned down several years ago, the league moved over to the Pin & Cue, Littlefield said. Littlefield is the league’s vice president. While the new location is good for Whitefish bowlers, original Kalispell members lament the loss of their town’s alley for both sentimental and practical reasons – the drive to Whitefish isn’t so fun in the winter.
But while the weather is a nuisance, it’s not a deterrent for these avid bowlers.
“I’d rather (drive) than not bowl,” said 85-year-old Victor Rinella.
Rinella has been retired since 1974, giving him a lot of time to bowl. He still bowls twice a week: once on Tuesday to practice and then on Thursday for league.
“It keeps you going.” Rinella said. “That’s the big thing. Otherwise you sit around and become a couch potato.”
No one would fault Rinella for being a couch potato at 85 years old after a career spent in the U.S. Air Force and working for the U.S. Department of Defense. But he and other league members get restless in their homes. Bowling is the perfect excuse to get them out.
Littlefield and Schrade’s team is called the Huckleberry Hounds, named by an original team member who loved picking huckleberries. When he passed away, the team carried on the name. They wear Huckleberry Hounds bowling shirts. Other teams include the Turkey Hunters, Senior Moments and the Searchers who are “always searching for strikes and spares.” Each team has four members, consisting of both men and women, and the league has room for three more teams. Everybody in the league is at least 55 years old, with a fair share in their 70s and 80s. The oldest is 89.
Dave Pirker, at 72 years old, still has a powerful southpaw release that consistently gives him scores of at least 200. When asked if he’s ever bowled a 300 game, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Once. 1984. January 27 at Skyline Bowl in Kalispell,” Pirker said.
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Pirker was subbing last Thursday for an injured bowler. At their age, it’s not uncommon for senior bowlers to endure surgeries and various operations that stem from long lives of activity. Substitutes are always ready.
“I’m going to bowl as long as I can stay healthy enough,” Pirker said.
Schrade, a Flathead native, smiles as he reminisces about long ago state championships: a football championship at Flathead High School in 1950 and a men’s bowling title in Missoula in 1966, long before mixed gender leagues existed. In all, Schrade has bowled for 57 years. He still averages 176, his body holding up with dignity despite 26 years as a log sawyer and foreman for the Plum Creek Timber Company. Holding Littlefield’s hand, Schrade cheers for a teammate.
“I’m getting old,” he says. “But not too old.”
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