There's something special about being first. It just never goes away.
Around this time nearly four decades ago, the eyes of the area's bowling community were all on Clara Walendziak as she tried to become the first women in the history of the Schenectady-Scotia Women's Bowling Association to record a 200 average for an entire season.
A Schenectady native and a 1947 graduate of Mont Pleasant High School, Walendziak managed to pull off the feat, finishing just a few pins over 200 in the Wednesday Women's Classic at Towne Bowling Academy. She also had the high triple of the season for women that year, posting a 715. As a sportswriter for the Schenectady Gazette back in the 1980s and 1990s, I covered a lot of bowling and got to know some wonderful people. Walendziak was certainly one of them. She excelled at numerous other sports in high school before becoming very good at throwing a 15 or 16-pound hard rubber ball down a lane sometimes dripping with oil.
Clara tossed an 831 four-game series on the final night of the season in late April to keep her average above 200, but she can't recall too many specifics about that night or the 1980-81 season.
"I haven't bowled for maybe 20 years so I really don't remember that much," said Walendziak, who was reached by phone at her home in the Bellevue section of the Schenectady. "We bowled because we enjoyed it. We liked the game for the fun of the game, and if you shot a big score that was great. If you didn't, well, it was just one of those nights. We did it because I enjoyed getting together with the girls."
While some injuries and some health issues shortened Walendziak's bowling career, I'm happy to report that at the age of 88, she is still quite active today.
"I try to keep busy, and I'm always going to church trying to help out," said Walendziak, who also looks in on a 105-year-old friend and neighbor. "She's over there by herself a few blocks from me so I go over and check in on her and help her pay all of her bills."
Along with being one of Schenectady's best on the lanes, she was also one of the sports top organizers. She served as SSWBA president for several seasons and was a long-time active member of the board. Walendziak didn't start bowling until she was nearly out of high school, at establishments such as Taberski's, Paramount Lounge, Woodlawn Bowl and Empire Lanes, all now gone. What she remembers most are not her achievements, but the fun she had.
"I don't really have any memorable moments," she said. "That was too long ago. We bowled because we had fun, and we made good friends. I haven't bowled in 20 years but you make sincere, lasting friendships, so I'm still in touch with a lot of the girls."
Where does Walendziak rank among the best ever in Schenectady?
"Well, I think it was probably a tossup between Evelyn Crowley and Marty Christian," she said. "I was pretty good. I was up there, but I'm not gonna pat myself on the back."
Others will do that for her.
"It was a real thrill when she averaged 200 that year," said 93-year-old Millie Kielmann, who grew up in Scotia and has been a long-time resident of Rotterdam Junction. "Clara was one of the best that I ever bowled with, probably the best."
Kielmann has some pretty good credentials herself, becoming just the third women in SSWBA history to bowl a 300 game when she recorded 12 straight strikes during a summer league in 1965 at Empire Lanes. The telescores used by Empire, which eventually became Revere Lanes, were broken day, keeping Kielmann's growing string of strikes in relative anonymity.
"The scoring machines on our lanes were broken, so we were doing the scores by hand and nobody knew I had anything going until the 10th frame," said Kielmann. "Then word got around. I think I got lucky in the eighth frame and then I had a standing ten pin that fell over, I think in the ninth frame. The next three shots weren't easy, I'll tell you. No one was shooting 300s in those days."
Checking in with Walendziak and Kielmann was a real treat. Bowling in Schenectady wouldn't be the same without them.