Seniors are on a roll in bowling leagues at Circle Lanes

Right up their alleys

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By Megan Dooley

Staff Reporter

Irene Garamoni was in her early 80s when she finally hung up her dancing shoes. It wasn't that she'd grown tired of tap so much as her beloved tap dancing teacher left to do other things.

So she traded her dance shoes in for a pair of bowling shoes. Turns out, she's not half bad with a bowling ball either. After 11 years bowling once a week in a league that connects keglers from the western suburbs at the nostalgia-inducing Circle Lanes in Forest Park, she's learned the ropes. Even now, as the oldest member in the league (93), she's still got an edge over her fellow bowlers.

Garamoni belongs to one of two mostly senior bowling groups, though they're not particularly strict on age. Launched as the Suburbanite Bowling League, it's been around since sometime in the 1960s, best anyone can remember. The member rules have evolved. It used to be an all-women league, but that changed as the years passed and fewer women stayed home with the kids. Today, it's a combination of men and women, mostly seniors alongside a handful of teammates in their late 30s and 40s. But folks closer to Garamoni's age are the norm. And one quiet Thursday afternoon in April, they gathered for their weekly league match to knock over some pins and ring in their friend's 94th year.

"I'm no good. I'm only happy I can throw the ball down the lane," said the diffident birthday girl, with a smile. Naturally, she's fudging the truth. A gaggle of teammates, asked to name the best player in the league, declare "Irene!" in chorus. Their praise pays off in good karma as her team finishes the first round in first place.

Garamoni, who never bowled before she joined this league, came upon her new pastime through one of her fellow tap-dancers, Wanda Walls, a neighbor she'd befriended in her condo building in River Forest.

"Wanda and I were taking tap-dancing at Triton, tap-dancing for seniors," she says, "and we were doing fine. Then they changed teachers, and we didn't like the [new] teacher." They heard about the Suburbanites through another fellow condo-dweller.

"She was after us to get an old ladies league in there. They're always looking for women," Garamoni said, "so we decided to bowl."

"I bowled here in a league when my kids were in grammar school at Lincoln School in Oak Park," said Walls. Years later, after a lengthy hiatus, she joined the Suburbanites.

It might seem like a challenging sport to tackle as you get on in age, what with the heavy ball and slick floorboards. And Walls admits attendance fluctuates based on individual ailments. One woman, for instance, was out that day, recovering from a broken collarbone, leaving the four-team league short a player (there are 15 total).

Others defy the odds. "Look at Irene — 93 and she makes strikes," said teammate Ruth Kuly. She slips on her shoes — they all have their own, none of those multicolored rentals for this group — and finds her lane.

Nedra Ragsdale shuffles in at Circle Lanes, shortly after the Senior Citizens League begins their Friday morning play. She's been working the counter at the alley since 1981 — the year this seniors league started. Hearing there's a reporter hanging about, she pulls out a yellowed newspaper article written about the league in its inaugural year.

"Rolling along past 65," the headline reads. Well, they're still rolling

Ragsdale has been around for all of it — and serves as secretary for the league when she's feeling up to it. She has every finals sheet for the league since that first year, tucked neatly away in a binder that she carries with her to her shifts at the bowling alley. She's shy and not interested in being quoted in the paper, but she'll tell you anything you need to know about the history of the league and the alley.

"She's been with this league the longest," says Bonnie Stutz, whose family owns Circle Lanes. But she's never played with them.

Member Ceoria Coates, a slight woman in her mid-80s who looks years younger, points out the bowlers to watch for. Do they ever win awards? "Oh, yes," she said, shocked that there would be any question. Check out Lois, she said. "Watch her score — she's high," Coates said, referring to the oldest bowler in the league, at 91 years.

Like any good play that day, Lois' spare is met with cheers and high-fives.

Modesty, however, seems to be the rule when asked how good they are. "I used to be. I'm not that good anymore at 86," said Corrine Blackman, a River Forest resident. She's actually one of the better players in the league, but she's had some practice.

"I've been bowling since I was 17," she said. "I just enjoy it."

She hasn't got much to say about her own performance, but she's quick to point out the league's braver souls — those who keep coming back, even after brushes with bad health.

"That takes a lot of courage," she observes. "Everyone is in pain, but we keep on going," she says. The half-smile on her face suggests she's only half serious.

At her turn, she steps up to the lane and throws a strike. When her teammate follows, also knocking down every pin, Blackman calls out, "Copycat!"

There's a pause later on as teams reorganize for the next game. Stutz turns on the silver microphone that blasts announcements throughout the alley over speakers, another throwback to a bygone era.

"OK, senior bowlers, we've got a lady who got a high score," she calls out. "Corrine Blackman! I think I was told a 203." Cheers erupt from the 40-some senior bowlers.

"The ladies are hot this morning!" Stutz testifies.

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