In its heyday, the Bridesburg Ladies Bowling Club had more than 120 members, packing the house every Tuesday morning at Erie Lanes in Juniata.
While its numbers have dwindled over the decades to about one-sixth of that original figure, the enthusiasm and festiveness are still humming for these older ladies who are still very much young at heart. Stride into the alley just past 9 a.m. every Tuesday, and you’re sure to hear lots of laughs and playful insults amongst pins dropping into the back of the lanes.
Much of this zest for bowling, and more importantly, life and social camaraderie, comes from Jackie DeSanctis, better known as Miss Jackie around these parts, or more simply, “Queen.” DeSanctis, who is coming up on her 80th birthday, has been running the ladies bowling league since 1962.
Back then and through the years, close to 50 lanes would be filled, and bowlers would be placed in an A-, B- or C-division, depending on their average score.
Now, there’s a touch over 20 women still actively participating, spread out over eight teams and just one division. Despite the shrinking numbers, you’d never know anything has changed.
“You only got a strike because there’s somebody here watching us!” DeSanctis jokingly bellowed at a fellow bowler, referring to the presence of this visiting reporter.
While some of these women are in their 70s, 80s, and, in one case, even 90s, they bust chops like teenagers during a pickup basketball game.
“Back in the 60s, I had an exercise class with about 12 women, and they all got tired of it,” DeSanctis said between rolls. “I knew there was bowling here at the same time, so I signed us all up. I just did it because they were bored, so I signed them up without them even knowing. We stayed more for the socialization and the friendships that developed, more so than the bowling.”
Sure, there are a few ace bowlers in the bunch, but what keeps the ladies coming back every week is the company. When people age, hobbies are sometimes hard to come by, but not for these folks.
“She can take anything and make something out of it,” bowler Maggie Smith affectionately said of Miss Jackie.
DeSanctis was born in Chester County and came to work at Bridesburg Rec Center in 1959 to work for the city as a program leader. She worked in the same place until she retired in 2005, and then became an unpaid volunteer at the rec center, where she puts in the same amount of time she did back then — about 50 hours a week.
“I know myself … I have zero hobbies,” she said with a laugh. “If I could never bowl again it wouldn’t bother me, because I don’t have a passion for it. My passion is my job, and they let me stay on to oversee the dance, gymnastics and tot rec programs while still handling organizational work and finances. I’ve always been in the same neighborhood and always had enough authority to satisfy me, so I just never stopped.”
Having said that, DeSanctis still has a passion for the league, if not for bowling itself.
It’s something she’s helped maintain for more than 50 years, and although the participation has shrunk due to more ladies having to work while others have passed away, she and those left still hold a deep affinity for one another, the last lines of defense to carry on a tradition that has stretched into its sixth decade.
“We’re still here every Tuesday morning,” she said. “Mixing with different types of people while bowling is a social outing for us. It’s hanging on by a shoestring now, but for all of us it gets us out of the house for a few hours and gives us something to do. For me, it’s a break in my everyday life at the playground.
“We still have a great time. It’s more informal than belonging to an official club, and it’s all-inclusive. Anybody who wants to join can, even though we’re lucky if we get one new bowler a year at this point. It’s just very fun and relaxing.”
Nancy Fleming has been a part of the league for almost 38 years. A former crossing guard, she told a story about how she’d come into the alley from the corner she was working, bowl her turn, then go back outside to work.
“I just enjoy the people,” said Fleming, one of the league’s more skilled bowlers. “The whole thing is the social aspect. Our numbers are down and that’s a shame, but we still have a good time. There’s no pressure, and you get to see a lot of the people you’ve known for years. As you get older, that’s important.”
“It gets us out of the house,” added Ellen Boice, the league’s treasurer and secretary. “I haven’t been feeling well, but since I got here and started bowling, I feel better. A lot of us have been here for years, and we all get along. It can be hectic, but most of all it’s fun.”
And then there’s Rose Stalker, who still bowls every Tuesday despite the fact that she turns 93 years young in August. She’s been bowling since she was 18, and estimated she had been with the Bridesburg league somewhere in between 20 and 30 years.
“Oh, I just love it,” she said in between turns. “It’s good for me. I had open-heart surgery not long ago, and the first thing I told the doctor was that I want to keep bowling. I came right back as soon as I could, and I’ll do it for as long as I can.”
That seems to be the overall sentiment of the league. While there’s only two dozen or so of them, most of the ladies said they’ll either bowl for as long as their health allows, or until the league runs out of mileage and folds up.
“At my best, I was bowling around a 140,” DeSanctis said. “Now I’m lucky if I get to 110. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is we have a great time, and we’re all still here.”