By Matt Cannizzaro and Daniel Farish
LAS VEGAS - Gene Ennis of Jamestown, Indiana, has witnessed the evolution of bowling first-hand.
Born in 1937, he began setting pins at his uncle's bowling center in 1947. That's when his love for the sport began, and it hasn't ended, despite retiring from the bowling business about 10 years ago.
"You know, I just never got out of it," said Ennis, who stormed onto the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships scene at the 1963 event in Buffalo, New York. "I've set pins, dressed lanes, managed, owned - pretty much anything you can do in a bowling center, I've done."
The 82-year-old right-hander has expressed his passion for bowling by competing in the USBC Open Championships for more than five decades, and he was recognized this week when he made his 50th appearance on the tournament lanes.
Ennis was the fifth of 23 bowlers scheduled to reach the milestone this year at the South Point Bowling Plaza, and he received a chevron, plaque and diamond lapel pin Wednesday to commemorate the achievement.
Growing up in a small town in Indiana, Ennis hasn't forgotten his roots. He has experienced the game from his uncle's quaint eight-lane bowling center to the grand venues of the USBC Open Championships, like the 78-lane National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada, and this year's home, the 60-lane Bowling Plaza.
"You come to a place like this in Las Vegas, and I just appreciate it so much," Ennis said. "I remember where I came from. My uncle's bowling center was a small eight-lane house in the basement of a bar. You don't see much of that anymore."
Ennis was instrumental in the growth of bowling in the Indianapolis area, working with businessmen and builders in the area to construct many of the bowling centers still there today.
He also had a noteworthy impact on the national level, forging friendships with bowling elite, such as past Professional Bowlers Association Tour Tournament Director Harry Golden.
"I had a hand in building four of the 80-lane bowling centers in Indianapolis," Ennis said. I then moved down to Sarasota (Florida) and built a house down there. One of my good friends, Harry Golden, was the tournament director for the PBA, and I helped get them down there to Florida."
Life for Ennis wasn't restricted to bowling, however. He served his country even more proudly than he served his favorite sport.
Ennis was a United States paratrooper, a military parachutist, and being a member of the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, is something that is incredibly important to him.
"I am very proud to have served my country," Ennis said. "It's something I put right up there with, well, anything else I've accomplished."
Anyone who has served, or is familiar with the armed forces, knows it instills a sense of duty, respect and commitment that often is not found in every day life.
It was those lessons that helped Ennis continue his streak at the Open Championships in 2017, when, just a day before he was supposed to bowl, he was laid up in a hospital room in Las Vegas.
"I started to have some discomfort a couple of days before, so I had to go to the hospital," Ennis said. "As it turned out, it was kidney stones. Well, on April 11, the stones were gone, and I told them 'OK, now that we are done, I've got to get out of here so I can go bowl.'"
Ennis was in the hospital April 11 and competing on the biggest stage in bowling on April 12. He insists that's the kind of dedication it takes to hit the 50-year mark.
In his Open Championships career, Ennis has knocked down 78,320 pins for a career average of 177.6. That includes sets of 499 in singles, 433 in doubles and 425 in team for a 1,357 all-events total this year at the South Point Bowling Plaza.
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