The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era 

Local 90-year-olds find their groove at bowling alley


March 28, 2017

PHIL PALKKI bowls during recent league action at Linn Lanes.

Phil Palkki doesn’t move real fast as he steps onto the runway at Linn Lanes bowling alley, where he joins several dozen other senior bowlers each Friday.

But maybe that’s because Palkki is 90 years old.

He pauses, focusing down the lane, then smoothly delivers the ball, which hooks cleanly into the pins for a strike.

Palkki, of Sweet Home, is one of four no nagenarian – over 90 – bowlers who regularly compete in morning tournaments at Linn Lanes.

Betty Simon, also 90 and a Sweet Home resident, is one of them, though she is currently prevented from bowling as she recovers from two broken arms suffered on an icy day last winter.

Prior to that she was a regular, averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of 100, she said. She’s rolled a few in the 200’s on good days.

According to Penny Fentiman, Linn Lanes’ league coordinator, the bowling alley draws 100 seniors over 65 or over in an average week to its three senior leagues on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. About a quarter of those are Sweet Home residents.

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

One regular at Linn Lanes, Howard Gabel, 90, who averages 161 and last year won his age group in a national tournament in Las Vegas. Another, Virginia Lester, 92, is the oldest of the group but she could pass for someone 20 years younger.

It’s a lively group, with a lot of good-natured banter – until the games start. Then the focus narrows as the senior bowlers step to the line.

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.”

Palkki started bowling in his 20s after growing up on farm in Minnesota during the Great Depression. His father’s health deteriorated when Palki entered high school, so he had to work and didn’t compete in sports.

“I love sports,” he said. “When I was a kid on the farm, about two miles from anywhere, I used to get a branch off of a tree, make it look like a bat, and I used to get rocks and have my own baseball game. Visualize it in my mind. We didn’t have much in those days as far as money.”

He and his new wife Helen, whom he’d known from Minnesota, moved to Sweet Home after Palki served in the Pacific during World War II.

He said he fell in love with the beauty of the Northwest.

“Minnesota is a good state to be from,” he said, adding that he went back after the war to propose to his girlfriend, Helen, who’d “waited for me.”

He started working for his brother-in-law, Arnold Hietlia, who was building houses in the area, and then spent 20 years as a mill worker for Willamette National and Willamette Industries, “doing just about everything they needed done.”

He bowled until he was in his late 40s, then quit due to knee problems. But at 78 he had knee replacement surgery.

“I found out I could bowl again,” Palkki said.

He bowled at Sweet Home Lanes, where he won tournaments, before it burned down in 2011.

He’s competitive.

Once he broke a finger on his bowling hand playing basketball a day before he was supposed to bowl in a tournament. He convinced a doctor to tape his fingers together rather than setting the injured digit in a cast. Palkki managed to win the singles division of the tournament despite the injury.

““I’m not that good anymore,” he said. “I used to be. Now I’m lucky to get 180. But it’s still fun.”

Simons grew up in the area, graduating from Lebanon High School, and got started bowling in 1947 when the alley was in a different location, she said.

“My sister, Doris Ball, coaxed me into it.”

She continued through two children and was averaging around 100 when she had her fall, she estimated.

“I had several 200 games at different points, but I can’t tell you exactly what the best one would be,” she said.

Her activities in recent years weren’t limited to Friday bowling league.

She waltzed once a week on Wednesdays at the Albany Eagles, and spent Tuesdays at the Spirit Mountain Casino, where, she said proudly, she’s in the black in slots.

She said the socialization is what she enjoys the most.

“It’s a friendly bunch that I belong to,” Simons said. “It’s fun. It’s just good for you.

“At my age, you like lots of friends. They’re getting fewer and fewer. This is really a nice bunch of people. “

Palkki echoed that.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s good exercise, good people.

“Everybody, if they’re able, should be active. You shouldn’t be a couch potato.”

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

– Angela Fentiman contributed to this story


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