Rolling through the years

SARANAC LAKE – On the local bowling scene, it would be tough to beat the experiences that three good friends have racked up during their long careers of enjoying the sport.

Lake Placid residents Rolly Sears and Don Whittemore and Saranac Lake’s Dick Barton have been familiar faces at local bowling alleys for years. They’re still going strong as a trio that has combined to compete in the sport for well over 150 years.

This summer, they have been spending their Monday evenings at Romano’s Saranac Lanes competing in the weekly King of the Hill contest. They’ve bowled together for decades, both locally and at state and national events. They each got their start at different locations and under different circumstances.

At age 80, Whittemore is the oldest member of the trio, Sears is next at age 79 and Barton is the youngster of the group as a 76 year old.

“I first started bowling in Panama in 1954 when I was in the Army,” Whittemore said. “Back then, I figured if I didn’t get involved in some kind of sport, I’d spend most of my time on KP duty. I tried golf, but I found a real love for bowling. I’ve stuck with it ever since.”

Sears got his first introduction to bowling during his early teenage years when he worked as a pin setter in Lake Placid. Since that time, he’s seen big technological changes in the sport.

“Pins used to be set up manually,” Sears said. “Back then, the balls were different and the bowling surfaces were different. Today, the balls are a composite material, they are drilled differently, they are much more aggressive, and the way the lanes have changed has made maintenance much easier.”

A native of Tupper Lake, Barton first started bowling around age 21. He also spoke about the way the game has evolved.

“When I started, bowling balls were made out of rubber,” Barton said. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is that bowling is a game of concentration.”

One of the highlights the trio has enjoyed over the years is competing in Rochester at the Lilac Tournament, an event that dubs itself the world’s second largest amateur bowling tournament. This year, the tourney, which runs annually from April to July, handed out approximately $500,000 in prize money.

“Every year, three or four teams from Saranac Lake and Lake Placid go down there,” Whittemore said. “It’s always something we look forward to. I can’t think back that far, but we’ve been going there for the past 40 years I would guess. We’ve never won, but we do win some money every now and then, and at the same time, we’ve met a lot of people from all over the place. It’s really popular with teams coming down from Canada.”

In addition to their annual trips to Rochester, the trio has also traveled to the national championship tournaments together when they were held in Syracuse and Knoxville, Tennessee. Sears has also participated in the national event in Reno, Nevada, where his oldest son Walter lives.

One feat that has eluded all three bowlers is the coveted 300 game, and despite their age, it’s a goal they all would like to achieve before they walk away from the lanes. For Sears, rolling a perfect game may be difficult. He’s been battling cancer and just returned to bowling in June after being forced to take time off since last December.

“I never know when my leg is going to go out on me, but I’m still going at it,” Sears said. “My bowling hasn’t been very good, but I haven’t quit. It’s a sport that exercises you, it’s a sport where you make good friends, and it’s a sport that gives you the opportunity to go to various tournaments. For me, it’s all about enjoying the game and trying to get better.”

Currently, Whittemore tops the trio with a 192 average. The closest he’s come to rolling a perfect game is finishing twice with a 298 score in two trips to the lanes during the same week. One of those games was in Lake Placid at Bowl Winkles and the other came at Romano’s Saranac Lanes. Barton has rolled a 299 on four occasions and Sears’ highest game was a 277.

Although they didn’t know each other during their early days, the three have forged a strong friendship through bowling. And they all hope to continue bowling together for a long time to come.

“I decided I’ll keep bowling until I can’t average 160 or better, and I hope that doesn’t come any time soon,” Whittemore said. “I’ve never hit that 300 mark, but it’s very possible.”

“As long as I can get up in the morning and not fall down, I’ll be at the lanes,” Barton added.

“Don needs me at the lanes,” Sears said. “He’s got the edge between us, but more often than not, I’m the set-up man and he does the dunking. We all have a great time together, and hopefully, we can keep it going for a long time to come.”