RENO, Nev. - Robert Shelightner of Port Ewen, N.Y., first noticed his wife, Betty, when he was in first grade, and at age 12, he told his father he was going to marry her someday.
The two now have been happily married for 56 years, and Shelightner has shown a similar passion and commitment to the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships. This weekend, he became the 157th bowler in history to celebrate 50 years of tournament participation.
The 77-year-old right-hander was the second of nine bowlers who will reach the milestone this year at the National Bowling Stadium. He made his debut at the 1961 event in Detroit and has been to every USBC Open Championships since 1966.
Shelightner has taken home many memories from the Open Championships over the years, but none stand out as strongly as his doubles and singles squad at the 2004 tournament, also at the NBS. That year, he had the chance to cross with USBC Hall of Famer Dick Weber. It was the last time Weber would compete on the championship lanes. He died shortly before he was scheduled to bowl in 2005.
"He was such a gentleman and a very easy person to get to know," said Shelightner, who was elected to the Kingston Bowling Association Hall of Fame in 1974. "He was the type of person who would say, 'come on, Bob, get a strike,' even though we were bowling against each other. When I got my scoresheet, I laid it in front of him and asked him to sign it. He said he'd be proud to. I still have that at home, and it's something I'll always cherish."
As he returned to the NBS to celebrate his milestone Saturday, Shelightner was humbled by the recognition he received from the bowlers around him. He received a plaque, chevron and diamond lapel pin to commemorate the achievement.
"It was really an outstanding experience, no question about it," Shelightner said. "To have some of the other bowlers come over and congratulate me was really wonderful."
Although his wife was unable to make the trip to Reno this year, Shelightner spoke proudly of their relationship and her never-ending support.
"One night, when I was 12, my father was took me to Kingston to play baseball," Shelightner said. "As we were leaving, I said, 'dad, do you see that girl?' He didn't say a word, but turned and looked. That's when I told him she was the girl I was going to marry. I finally asked her out on a date when I was 15, and the rest is history."
Baseball took precedence in Shelightner's early years as he earned a contract with the New York Giants organization as a catcher. He had the opportunity to share the diamond with the likes of National Baseball Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou.
When his baseball career came to end, bowling began to gain more of Shelightner's attention. As he quickly improved, the allure of competing in tournaments eventually led him to his first Open Championships appearance.
"When I started to pay more attention to bowling, I got into one of the major leagues and raised my average from 175 to 200 in about three years," said Shelightner, who bowls league at Kingston's HoeBowl on the Hill. "I began to get asked to bowl in tournaments, and in 1961, a fellow came along and asked me if I wanted to go to Detroit. So I did, and that started it. It has grown into 50 years and has been very special."
In 2013, Shelightner rolled 453 in singles, 439 in doubles and 439 in team for a 1,331 all-events total. In 50 years of competition, he has knocked down 81,068 pins for a career average of 181.4.
Presenting sponsors for the 2013 USBC Open Championships include Circus Circus Reno, Eldorado Hotel Casino Reno and Silver Legacy Resort Casino Reno.