SCARBOROUGH — Frances Smith’s Monday morning didn’t go quite as planned. Her car wouldn’t start and she had to wait for a service truck.

But she still managed to make it to the Big 20 before the balls started rolling in the St. John’s Ladies bowling league.

Inside the bowling alley, she changed into her bowling shoes as she chatted with the other women in the St. John’s Ladies league. At 96, she fits right in.

The St. John’s Ladies league – started decades ago by women from the South Portland church with the same name – is unique not just for how long it has been running, but for the age of its bowlers. There are now six regular participants in their 90s and a handful of others in their late 80s.

“These people rarely miss a week,” said Pat Cook, 82, president of the St. John’s league. “If you’re bowling and think you shouldn’t have come this week and there’s a woman in her 90s bowling next to you, you think you shouldn’t complain.”

The league, which runs every Monday from September to May, is drawing to a close for the season, but the bowlers are ready to celebrate. On Monday, they’ll host a “90s party” to celebrate the nonagenarians who show up each week ready to knock down pins and visit with friends.

The St. John’s league has been around for at least six decades, but no one seems to know exactly how long. Started as a social opportunity for women at St. John’s in South Portland, it was first held at a bowling alley in Mill Creek. It moved to the Big 20 Bowling Center on Route 1 in Scarborough decades ago.

Ginny Williams, 98, puts on her bowling shoes after arriving at the Big 20 Bowling Center. Staff photo by Jill Brady

In the early years, the children of the bowlers would come during school vacations and stay with a babysitter in a function room at the bowling alley. While the bowling league and its faithful bowlers are still going strong, St. John the Evangelist Church closed in 2013 and the league is now open to anyone who wants to join. This year, there are 14 teams made up of four bowlers each.

“It’s always been a chance for people to get together,” Cook said. “It doesn’t matter how good you are.”

EXERCISE AND CAMARADERIE

As the bowlers place their balls on the ball returns and settle into their assigned lanes, Smith stands out in the crowd in a vibrant red sweater pinned with a gold bowling ball brooch. With a purple bowling ball in hand, she stops to greet fellow nonagenarian Florence “Sis” Cairns, 93, who leans in close and takes Smith’s face in her hands as they talk over the clattering of falling pins.

Smith raised four daughters and now has five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Judith Macinnes, comes to Big 20 every week to cheer for her mother’s team. Smith worked for many years in state government while raising her family near Augusta. She took up bowling after she moved to Scarborough three decades ago following the death of her husband of 41 years.

“I wish I had him back, but no such luck,” said Smith, who attends church every day.

Like her fellow 90-somethings, Smith said she shows up for the league every week for the exercise and, just as importantly, for the social time. It’s not a super competitive league, which works for Smith, who says some days she’s a good bowler and other days she isn’t.

“I tell my captain I’m going to quit. She says ‘if you do, I will,’” Smith said.

In the next lane, Cairns alternates between bowling, chatting and cheering. An avid sports fan who loves watching her seven great-grandchildren play sports, she has participated in the St. John’s league since the beginning.

“I can’t even count,” she says of the years she has been bowling. “If I win, fine. I find it most enjoyable, especially at my age, to be able to bowl.”

Smith appreciates that the bowlers all cheer for each other – and especially for the women who have stayed active years longer than they ever imagined.

“We’re lucky. We’re very blessed to be here,” she said. “I’m not even the oldest one here.”

Innez Kierstead, 98, checks her score while bowling in the St. John’s League on Monday. Staff photo by Jill Brady

‘I SAY GOD BLESS THEM’

Ginny Williams isn’t the oldest bowler either, but she comes close. She’s 98 now, and a few months younger than Innez Kierstead, who is also 98.

Williams stared down the lane as she prepared for the final frame, then stepped forward, rolled the ball down and knocked over most of the candlepins. The Gorham woman dabbed her fingers on a purple sponge before picking up the last ball and narrowing her eyes on the last pins left standing. Her team cheers as she finishes out her game with an 82.

Williams, a frequent Bingo player and retired fourth-grade teacher, first joined the bowling league seven years ago. She says she’s working this season on bringing up her average because hers is the lowest on the team.

“I like to keep busy,” the 98-year-old says between games. “I don’t know what I’m going to do after this year. I can’t bowl forever.”

Williams’ teammate Dorothy Rodney isn’t bothered that their team stands at the bottom of the rankings. She’s more focused on enjoying the time with friends – especially the nonagenarians she finds inspiring.

Lucy Rea, 94, lets one roll. She has the league’s second-highest scoring average. Staff photo by Jill Brady

“I say God bless them,” Rodney, 71, said. “They can put their feet on the floor, get out of bed and come here. I say if they can do it, I can do it, too.”

There are few in the league who bowl better – or more frequently – than Lucy Rea.

Rea, who will be 95 in June, started bowling about 20 years ago. So far this year, she has the best score with no strikes or spares, a 91. Her average is 87, the second highest in the league.

“After my husband died, I wanted something to do, so I came here,” she said.

Rea has been there ever since, bowling in the St. John’s Ladies league and two others. She likes to keep busy and thinks far too many people “sit back and do nothing.”

“I’m never home,” Rea said. “When my kids want to go somewhere, they ask ‘Ma, are you busy?’ ”

A few lanes away, 93-year-old Mabel Landry of Scarborough says she started bowling years ago – so long ago she can’t remember.

“My bowling has gone downhill,” she says.

But Landry isn’t here every Monday chasing a top score. For the Scarborough resident, it’s all about the social time.

“We have fun,” she says. “It keeps us alive.”

‘DOWN THE MIDDLE YOU GO’

Florence “Sis” Cairns, 93, gets ready to roll. Staff photo by Jill Brady

At the far end of the bowling alley is 98-year-old Kierstead, the South Portland woman who is the oldest bowler in the league by a few months. She eases out of her chair and walks slowly toward the ball return to bowl her second game. She steps to the line, bends slightly and rolls the ball directly down the center of the lane.

All but one pin topples and Kierstead flashes a smile at her teammates. The final pin falls with her next ball for a spare, much to the delight of her teammates.

“A ten!” cheered teammate Sheila Johnson, 77. “Look at her score, my god. A 67 already.”

“(Kierstead) is unbelievable,” Johnson said a few minutes later. “Sometimes she can’t bowl, but sometimes it’s ‘wow’ like today. She bowled a strike earlier.”

Kierstead, known in the league for her great sense of humor, worked for more than 25 years as a grocery store cashier and raised two children with her late husband. Her family has now grown to include seven grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. She has been bowling for 40 years and used to participate in multiple leagues.

“I’m not a perfect bowler, but I enjoy doing it,” Kierstead says as she waits to start her final game.

Kierstead’s daughter, 71-year-old Carolyn Williams, had just finished bowling in the neighboring lane. A couple times, the pair have been on the same team, which Kierstead particularly enjoys.

“She’s amazing. She just doesn’t want to give up,” Williams says. “Every year she says she probably won’t bowl again, but here she is.”

Nearing the end of her final game, Kierstead turns to the scorekeeper to double check that she has three balls left.

“Down the middle you go,” Johnson calls out as Kierstead lets go of the first ball.

The ball curves to the right and clanks into the gutter. Kierstead laughs and shrugs as she reaches toward the ball return. With her next ball, she topples seven pins. She turns to her teammates and flashes a wide smile.

“I did pretty good, didn’t I?” she says.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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