Unique hall class: National bowling pioneer with local ties among 5 inducted into Marquette County Bowling Hall of Fame

Inductees and their representatives stood for this photo at River Rock Lanes in Ishpeming on Dec. 16 for the fourth annual Marquette County Bowling Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. From left are inductees Gilford “Gil” Perry, Dave Kangas and Gena Conradson; Ed Sweeney, Mary M. Sweeney and Mary Sweeney Connelly, representing the late Dennis Sweeney; Ryan Barry, representing the late Tracey Pellonpaa; and Darlene Sweeney Chambers, reprsenting Dennis Sweeney. (Journal photo by Steve Brownlee)

This is a great way to start the 2018-19 bowling column season.

Today, let’s celebrate the fourth induction class into the Marquette County Bowling Hall of Fame that was held at River Rock Lanes on Dec. 16.

It’s taken me awhile to get around to this year’s column with a few health scares recently, but now I’m back to covering the sport I love.

This year’s hall of fame class was rather unique for several reasons. The easiest is by counting the inductees — five, where the class consisted of four people for each of its first trio of years.

And secondly there in an inductee that virtually none of us who have had anything to do with the Marquette County bowling community ever knew.

From left, WLUC-TV6 journalist Remi Murrey interviews relatives of the late Dennis Sweeney, who traveled from the St. Louis, Mo., area for their grandfather's induction into the Marquette County Bowling Hall of Fame on Dec. 16 at River Rock Lanes in Ishpeming. At right is Marquette County U.S. Bowling Congress President Pat Gingras of Ishpeming. Sweeney was born in 1873 and raised in Negaunee, moving first to Milwaukee then to St. Louis around the turn of the 20th century. The elder Sweeney was the major organizing influence for the formation of the Women's International Bowling Congress, the women's sanctioning body for bowling not only in the U.S., but worldwide that existed for nearly a century from 1916 until about 2004, when it merged with the men's-based American Bowling Congress. Sweeney has also been credited with several other innovations in bowling dating back to the early 20th century. (Journal photo by Steve Brownlee)

It’s partly because he was a lot older than any of us — heck, he even had about 40 years on our oldest inductee, the late Everett Senobe, who passed away three years ago just past the age of 100.

This inductee is the late Dennis J. Sweeney, a Negaunee native who made his name in bowling in the little Missouri burg of St. Louis.

Born in 1873 and the son of an underground miner, he moved from the Upper Peninsula in the early years of the 20th century, first to Milwaukee and then to St. Louis.

Becoming a bowling center owner and operator for many decades, he was one of the prime shakers in 1916 for the formation of the Women’s International Bowling Congress.

He was also instrumental in pushing for the use of handicap in leagues, and in the 1930s was one of the organizers of Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America.

Steve Brownlee

About a hundred years ago, women bowling’s was about as popular as good bowlers giving lesser bowlers free pins to even up the competition.

Let’s just say, not very.

But Sweeney understood that by tapping into the interests of half the population could bowling realize its potential.

“Bowling will not prosper until women become a part of it,” Sweeney said around the time of the WIBC formation.

Sweeney’s grandson, Ed Sweeney, said during his predecessor’s induction that his grandfather was rebuffed when he wanted to bring women in as members of the American Bowling Congress, the only sanctioning body at the time.

That prompted Sweeney to gather several dozen leading women’s bowling representatives of the time to start the Women’s National Bowling Association, the original name of the WIBC.

It grew to where it became on par with the ABC as bowling became just as popular with the fairer sex as it did with “manly men.”

Finally, in 2005, the two big organizations merged along with the Young American Bowling Alliance and USA Bowling to become the U.S. Bowling Congress.

With all that in mind, several of Sweeney’s grandchildren and other relatives made the trek from the St. Louis to Ishpeming for the hall of fame induction.

Two of those directly benefitting from Sweeney’s vision — but many years later — were 2018 inductees Gena Conradson and the late Tracey (Barry) Pellonpaa.

Conradson, the grand-niece of Senobe, has been an accomplished bowler, rolling a 700 or two and carrying one of the area’s top averages when she injured her back right around New Year’s Day of 2001.

But she found that with hard work and sheer determination, she may have become an even better bowler because of it.

She went on to roll seven more 700s in the decade that followed before she was forced to have several back surgeries.

Conradson has told me that starting in 2001, she received instant feedback when her approach wasn’t right with shooting pain down her legs from a pinching of her spinal cord.

She bowled in numerous tournaments in and around the Upper Peninsula, along with joining her husband Gordy to bowl in the ABC Championships in Reno, Nevada, in 2001.

Pellonpaa was 28 and still known as Tracey Barry in her first year of league bowling, having taken up the sport less than two years earlier, when she just missed a rare women’s 300 game with a 299 at Country Lanes, the forerunner to River Rock.

She credited coaching from Marquette County native John LaCombe for her rapid rise in the bowling ranks.

Then Barry went out and shot another 299 barely a year after the first in another Country league despite her own injury — a dislocated bowling shoulder.

By the way, a 5-pin the first time and 10-pin the second time came on the 12th and final ball of each near-perfecto.

For the men, Gil Perry wouldn’t have remembered the formation of the WIBC, but he can recall just about anything related to bowling any living bowler in Marquette County can.

At age 92, he’s in his 64th year as a sanctioned ABC/USBC bowler, the same number of years he goes back in the Monday Industrial League and other names it has had at River Rock — back to 1955.

He’s got to be near some national records, since my past research showed the U.S. record is 76 years as a sanctioned bowler, and that’s a nonconsecutive record unlike Gil’s.

Perry recalls bowling at numerous Marquette County centers that include the Sportland, Viga’s, Olympic Lanes, Eastwood Lanes, Four Seasons, Westwood Lanes, the Miracle Bowl and Country Lanes.

He also said during the induction process that he plans to keep bowling “until I can’t hold the ball anymore.”

In his younger years, he was a lefthanded weapon on a county all-star team that traveled to several challenge tournaments around the U.P.

And finally, there’s Dave Kangas, a natural athlete who got serious about bowling after turning age 60. That’s when he carried his first 200 average and later spent about seven or eight years bowling on several professional senior bowling tours, most notably the Senior PBA.

It was on those tours where he bowled two of his three perfect 300 games.

This Air Force veteran was a fastpitch softball player in his earlier years and played football, basketball and ran track at Negaunee High School in the early and mid 1950s.

He cashed several times as a PBA “Super Senior,” those over age 60 in these 50-years-and-over tour, along with at least one regular cash as he traveled around the country in a motor home with his wife Jackie.

Information compiled by Journal Sports Editor Steve Brownlee. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.