Through its four-plus decades, the Old Timers Bowling Tournament has changed locations, cities and states, but it has always remained a family operation.
Ethel and Howard Sitter started the tournament in 1969. They owned a print shop in Portland, where they published The Oregon Bowler, a weekly local bowling publication, from 1958-1992. Their daughter, Debbie Deane, took over the event in 2000, and has her husband and children helping out. On Saturday, the tournament open to bowlers 50 and older packed competitors into Allen’s Crosley Lanes for its 48th year.
“It’s almost old enough to bowl in itself,” said Deane, 70, of Vancouver. “I never thought it would run this long or be this popular. The bowlers keep coming back. I get new bowlers every year. This tournament has spanned generations.”
Norm Ballard, 88, of Vancouver was bowling for the sixth time in the Old Timers tournament on Saturday. He was wearing a “Maude’s Crew” shirt, a nod to the team his mother bowled on when she participated for many years. Maude Ballard bowled until she was 97 and lived until she was 103. On his “Maude’s Crew” shirt, Norm Ballard wore a patch with his mother’s name that said “103 years.”
“It’s nice to see several people I bowled with in the 1940s and ’50s when I was a young man,” Ballard said. I’ve been bowling since I was 9.”
Don Allen also used the tournament to catch up with people he’s known for decades.
“Bowling is a tight community,” said Allen, 60. “It’s an opportunity for people who have known each other 10, 20, 30, 40 years to get together. There’s people here who remember me as a kid running around the bowling alley getting in everybody’s way.”
Allen owns Crosley Lanes, which his father, Donn Allen, bought in 1987. His father and grandfather owned other bowling alleys in Portland before that. One of the first things they tried to do when they bought Crosley was bring the Old Timers Bowling Tournament from Portland to Vancouver.
“It was 30 years of trying to get it,” Don Allen said. “We just out-waited all the bowling centers in Portland that closed down. We’re thrilled to have them. It was like a bucket list sort of thing to get the tournament here.”
Saturday was the second year the tournament has taken place in Vancouver. The tournament moved to Vancouver last year because Crosley was the biggest bowling alley in the area after Portland’s 20th Century Lanes downsized, according to Deane.
The biggest turnout for the tournament came three years ago, when they had 50 teams of five competitors. This year, Deane capped it at 40 teams of five bowlers each, and it filled up quickly. Each team bowls three games, and the team with the highest combined score wins $500. There’s also a handicap: teams whose combined age is older than 275 get an additional pin to their score for every year older than 275 they are.
The oldest team on Saturday was from Keizer, Ore., and their combined age was 403 years old. The second-oldest team came in at 402 years old, and was also from Keizer. The oldest bowler was Ray Olsen, 94, of Portland.
“We’re the only tournament where people are lying about their age, saying they’re older than they are,” Deane said.
Deane said her parents created the tournament with a minimum age of 50 because at the time there was a big focus on professional and younger bowlers, and they wanted to create a community of bowlers around their own age. The first year, they recruited bowling alley owners to get involved, and had 16 teams to start.
The tournament is invitation-only, which makes it “like pulling teeth to try to get into,” Allen said. Deane said that most teams come back year after year, and if someone can’t make it, their team captain fills the spot. If the team captain drops out, they usually ask someone else from the team to take over, Deane said.
That helps Deane fill it up, since there aren’t as many bowling alleys to recruit from.
“All the bowling alleys are being gobbled up by developers,” Allen said. “Bowling centers have acreage. Developers are eyeing them for that land. There’s still a few of us left, though.”