John Venturello Has No Time to Spare, So It's Only Natural That He's Still Scoring Strikes

updated 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The thumb of John Venturello's right hand is elongated, twisted and shaped to accommodate a bowling ball, which is understandable, since he has been using it for that purpose for 85 years. At 100 years of age, Venturello is the oldest bowler sanctioned by the American Bowling Congress.

On this particular afternoon, Venturello, better known as "Papa John," is studying the seven pin, the only one still standing, at the Fair Lanes Plantation bowling alley in Plantation, Fla. Behind him, his teammates, all wearing red shirts bearing the legend "Damned If I Know," check out photographs of John taken here only a few weeks ago at his centennial birthday party. They giggle especially at the picture of Papa John happily smiling for the camera while a bosomy belly dancer squirms on his lap.

Papa John converts his spare and turns, arms upraised to high five his teammates, who are all in their 20s and 30s. He bowled his first and only 300 game in 1907, during the Roosevelt Administration (Teddy's, that is), 50 years before any of his fellow players were born. That was shortly after he immigrated to New York City from his native Italy. In the 71 years since, he has bowled more games in the high 200s than he cares to remember and only last year bowled a 280 game in one of the five leagues he bowls in on week-nights. "John doesn't bowl in senior leagues," says Mike Rogers, manager of Fair Lanes. "He maintains he's too young." And maybe he's right; his average is still 141.

Now a single man, the twice-widowed John has plenty of time to bowl. Although he's dating a "79-year-old girl" whom he squires around town in his '86 Toyota Corolla, he says he is resisting her entreaties to marry because he would rather play the field. "I never come to them—they come to me," he boasts with a wink and a smile. "I always say, 'Love me today, tomorrow's too late.' "

John was born on a farm in Castel San Lorenzo near Salerno, Italy, where he tended cows and sheep and goats in the rocky hills and at night slept out under the stars. He came to America with his parents in 1903 on a boat that took 21 days to cross the Atlantic. Fittingly, his first job in New York was as a pin boy in a bowling alley, where he promptly fell in love with the game.

John has bowled his way through the Wright brothers' adventure at Kitty Hawk, two World Wars and man's first steps on the moon. He supported his family, which would eventually include four children, nine grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, as a button maker, a trolley driver and a presser in a skirt factory. His first wife, Angela Donadeo, died in 1956; he retired and moved to Pompano Beach, Fla., in 1963, where he got married again and kept on bowling. His second wife died in 1977, and four years ago he nearly did too, when he was involved in an automobile accident at the age of 96. He suffered cuts, a punctured lung, a cracked pelvis and a sprained shoulder, and his doctor warned him it would be difficult to bowl again. A year later he was back at the lanes, though, and he even got his driver's license renewed—it's good until 1990, when he'll be 102.

But enough ancient history. "You're up, Papa," says one of his teammates. Papa John excuses himself. He stands, heads over to his lane, hefts his ball, studies the pins, steps and bowls. An explosion of pins—strike! High fives all around. A pretty, dark-haired woman in her 40s gives Venturello a kiss on the cheek. John smiles. "I got no grudge," he says. "I've enjoyed life. I love the world. Besides, they don't charge me to bowl anymore."

—By Pat Jordan

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