Salem Statesman Journal
Published 6:00 a.m. PT Feb. 5, 2020
Don Lebold stands back and scans the 24 shiny, wooden lanes before him. It’s mid-morning, and his Keizer bowling alley is buzzing with patrons of the retirement age and older.
He points out a woman who’s been coming here since she was young and is on her second bout of cancer, a man who can bark like a dog and make numerous other entertaining sounds, and a man who he coached as a junior bowler and is now president of the Senior League.
It’s almost like Lebold is introducing his children, proud of each one for different reasons.
As he retires and sells the property and business, they all occupy a special place in his heart — as do the out-of-towners commanding a pair of middle lanes.
They make the weekly trek because of the fun and friendly atmosphere. The bowling alley back home is fine, they say, it’s just not Town & Country.
“And it’s not Don,” a team spokeswoman says, careful not to slam their hometown house but eager to compliment their host.
Don and Ann Lebold at Town & Country Lanes in Keizer on Jan. 30, 2020. They are selling the bowling alley after more than 50 years of ownership.
Lebold has watched many of these people grow up here, raise families and then bring their grandchildren back for lessons — which he never charges for.
The grandchildren may or may not know they’re getting tips from a former pro. The 81-year-old is as much of an icon as the 60-year-old bowling alley, if not more so.
From pinsetter to prize money
Lebold’s life reads like a bowling fairy tale, if there is such a thing.
He grew up in Salem in the 1940s and ’50s, spending much of his free time at University Bowling Alley just a few blocks from his house.
He worked as a pinsetter, getting paid a dime a game to manually reset pins to their correct positions, clear out fallen pins from the lanes, and return balls to players.
Before automation, because of limited space between the pins and back wall, bowling alleys would hire young boys to squeeze into position to do the work entirely by hand.
“It was dangerous,” Lebold remembers. “Pins and balls would be flying from both sides.”
On a good afternoon or evening, he could make upwards of $3 in 2½ hours, which today would equate to better than minimum wage.
He was even more skilled on the front end, but there were no youth leagues back then. By the time he was 14, he was bowling in a men’s league.
A series of titles and trophies followed. He claimed $300 in prize money for winning a tournament his senior year, which cost him his amateur status and No. 1 singles spot on the South Salem High tennis team. Lebold graduated from South in 1956.
When he was 20, he had the state’s high bowling average of 205. Even Lebold scoffs at how unimpressive that sounds today. Just a few years ago, 210 was the 10th-best average in the house at Town & Country.
“Scores have gone up astronomically,” he says, crediting or blaming the reactive resin bowling ball. “I just imagine what I could have done with the equipment we have now. I dream about that.”
Going pro and back home again
Photos of Don Lebold through the years at Town & Country Lanes. Don and Ann Lebold are selling the bowling alley after more than 50 years of ownership. Photographed in Keizer on Jan. 30, 2020
Bowling was popular in the Salem area in the 1950s and ’60s. Residents had their choice of six different places to bowl.
Town & Country opened in 1960, long before Keizer was incorporated.
When the plan to build the new “pin palace” on River Road N. was announced, Lebold questioned the location: “I was poor, had no driver’s license and remember thinking, ‘Who is going to drive that far out of town to go bowling?’ ”
His circumstances changed significantly the following year, when he was one of two Oregon bowlers drafted by the National Bowling League Association.
He signed a standard players contract in May 1961 with the Fresno City Bombers.
The signing took place at Cherry City Bowl with owner and operator Dick Phipps acting as the Bombers’ representative. Photographs of Lebold with Phipps and his parents, Lloyd and Mildred, were published in The Oregon Statesman and the Capital Journal.
His contract called for him to be paid $6,250 for 26 weeks of bowling, beginning that fall. He still has his copy of the contract, printed on blue paper and folded neatly in a box of memorabilia at his Keizer home just a stone’s throw of the bowling alley.
Reports in the newspaper estimated he stood to make $12,000 for the season, including exhibits and tournaments.
Lebold was 22 at the time and a senior at what was then Oregon College of Education in Monmouth.
He was one of nine bowlers on the team when the Bombers opened league play that October. His roommate was Billy Hardwick, future Hall of Fame bowler.
The league was designed to rival the Professional Bowlers Association, focusing more on team success than individual achievements. Cities bought franchises and put together teams to compete in a league like the NFL and other pro sports.
A point system was devised. Bowling alleys with stadium-style seating were built.
But with no TV contract like the more established PBA, the National Bowling League struggled financially. It lasted only one season.
Lebold returned to his hometown, bowling still in his blood.
He got a job at Town & Country in 1962 as a house promoter.
A few years later, he met his wife Ann there and eventually had an opportunity to become co-owner of the establishment, which he’s called home ever since.
‘We didn’t get rich off bowling’
Don Lebold and the late Tony Vittone went in as partners to buy Town & Country in 1967. Vittone, who managed other bowling houses in town, handled public relations. Lebold ran the business side.
Lebold’s wife became more involved when Vittone sold his share to them in 1991.
It’s always been a family affair. Two of their three daughters worked in the restaurant once they were old enough.
And their 18 employees are like extended family. Most are part-time but also include Elaine LaPointe, who manages the restaurant and has worked for the Lebolds for 40 years, and Billy Bowman, the pro shop manager who’s worked for them for 30.
Town & Country survived when other bowling alleys were torn down or went out of business. It helped that the Lebolds owned the property and building.
“There were years we struggled, oh, yeah,” Don Lebold says. “We didn’t get rich off bowling.”
In some cases, they needed help. One lifeline came from the Oregon Lottery, although becoming a lottery retailer wasn’t his first choice.
“I didn’t want it. I didn’t like the effects it had on some people,” Lebold says “But it pays a lot of the bills.”
More importantly, it allowed them to continue to support youth programs and scholarships in the community.
Town & Country offers an in-school bowling program, bringing portable lanes to classrooms for kindergarten and elementary students at 10 schools.
The program combines physical activity with reading and math skill development through flashcards and learning to subtract numbers from a set of 10 bowling pins.
“We put the portable lanes in the gym, let them use them for two weeks, then give them a free day of bowling here,” Lebold says.
Children of all abilities are welcome at Town & Country, something he and his wife have always stressed because they have a special needs daughter.
Salem hallmark: Mosaic tile sculpture Eco-Earth needs asbestos abatement
Several years ago, they installed a wheelchair ramp and added bumpers to all lanes, and today there are several groups of children and adults who use the amenities weekly.
Perhaps their greatest legacy, though, will be the Turnaround Achievement Awards they sponsor. The program recognizes middle and high school students who demonstrate effort, commitment and perseverance in the face of adversity. Since 1994, more than 400 students have been honored for turning their lives around.
“That has been a highlight of our year every year,” Ann says.
It’s a program Don says will continue under new ownership. While it isn’t included in the contract, there’s a verbal agreement between the two parties.
“And just as binding as anything we have on paper,” says Tim Davis, chairman and president of Valor Mentoring, the nonprofit organization buying the bowling alley.
Introducing the new owner
Don Lebold, from left, Ann Levold and Tim Davis at Town & Country Lanes in Keizer on Jan. 30, 2020. The Lebolds are selling the bowling alley to Davis, with Valor Mentoring, after more than 50 years of ownership
The two men shook hands on the deal last summer, but it took attorneys more than six months to finalize it.
Contracts have now been signed, and the nonprofit will soon assume ownership. A groundbreaking celebration with Keizer Chamber of Commerce is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19.
Valor Mentoring plans to expand the bowling alley into a community center — something the Lebolds could never afford to do — with recording studios for music, videos and podcasts, an expanded restaurant and coffee shop, and a live stage.
“This is our dream come true, truly,” Ann Lebold says as she pats Davis on the shoulder. “Kids are going to love this place. The whole community will.”
Valor Mentoring provides mentorships for mostly young men through one-on-one relationships, music, media and the arts, and community outreach projects. It’s been operating at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Salem and currently has 110 mentorships.
At its new headquarters, the nonprofit will focus on providing opportunities for young people, parents and families to connect.
Modern culture doesn’t help parents stay connected to their children, says Davis, an associate pastor at Church on the Hill in Keizer. “We want to offer activities that help parents connect with kids, not just bowling, but with all of our other programs.”
The Lebolds significantly reduced the sales price — which isn’t being divulged — to accommodate the nonprofit and its vision. An area bowling alley operator previously made an offer, and there were rumors Town & Country would be demolished and the property turned into a car lot.
“My passion was to keep this a bowling lane,” Don Lebold says. “I look at what bowling has done for me, and I wanted to keep bowling for the youth.”
Davis, wanting to dispel any other rumors about the fate of the bowling alley, says all 24 lanes will remain open. The Lottery will go away, but beer and wine will continue to be served. Renovations are planned, with hopes of remaining open through the process, and a name change is likely down the road.
The legacy of the Lebolds will not be lost or forgotten.
“Don and Ann may not like it, but we will find ways to honor them both in the building and in the community,” Davis says. “You don’t pour your life and soul into a community for more than 50 years and have the heart they do without being honored.”
Fishing on retirement schedule
Town & Country Lanes in Keizer on Jan. 30, 2020. Don and Ann Lebold are selling the bowling alley after more than 50 years of ownership
The truth is, Town & Country has been a community hub for decades, but on a less formalized basis.
It’s been a place where youngsters celebrating their birthday are treated to Don Lebold’s rousing Donald Duck rendition of “Happy Birthday” over the PA system and senior bowlers turning 90 are served cake and coffee by the staff.
“I don’t even picture this as being mine,” Lebold says about the bowling alley.
“It’s like we belong to the community,” Ann adds.
It won’t be easy for him to let go. Ann knows that better than anyone. She’s been working on her husband to retire since he turned 70, but he wouldn’t even talk about it then, and they knew none of their daughters were interested in carrying on the business.
A recent staff meeting with new management helped put their worries at ease. Plus, Don will be on site for the unforeseeable future helping with the transition.
The silver lining for retirement is that it will enable him to spend more time fishing on the Oregon Coast in his beloved 21-foot silver and blue North River Jet Sled.
He may even take up bowling again.
A few months ago, after drilling a new ball and doing some shadow bowling, he bowled a game for the first time in several years.
He scored 211, six pins better than his state-high average in 1958, proudly giving a frame-by-frame recap, including five straight strikes to finish the game.
“He can remember every score he’s ever bowled,” his wife says, “but he can’t remember what I ask him to get at the grocery store.”