Jerome Lee had one suggestion for how his story should read.
“Just say, ‘Here is Jerome Lee’s achievement. Period. The end,’” Lee says with a laugh. “Then leave the rest of the page blank.”
Well, sorry Jerome.
Lee, one of the Rogue Valley’s and Oregon’s most prolific bowlers, celebrated his 80th birthday on Nov. 7 at Roxy Ann Lanes. An estimated 55 people, both friends and family, turned out to surprise the local bowling legend.
Lee’s daughters, Marva Wertz, who came in from Connecticut, and Lawna Wyatt, from the Seattle area, organized and made an appearance. Grandsons Zach and Anthony Wyatt also played a role, picking up Lee with the promise of an ordinary night of bowling.
“I knew nothing about this,” says Lee. “They have no business having a party for somebody that’s 80 years old. I was completely surprised. It was nice to see my daughters and grandsons.”
Even if the ruse caught him off guard.
“I come in and see a bunch of people sitting around,” Lee adds. “I heard someone starting to sing happy birthday and I thought it was for some young person. Then I thought, ‘Shoot, this is for me.’”
Lee may downplay his role in the local bowling community but others know better. Medford’s Marshall Holman, who won 22 titles on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour, enjoyed a long, illustrious professional career. Before it all started, however, Holman was looking up to Lee.
“Jerome and I bowled a lot together before I went out on Tour,” says Holman, 61, who estimates he’s known Lee for nearly 50 years. “He was the man when I was growing up. He was definitely the head guy in Southern Oregon.
“He never went out on the Tour because he felt a responsibility to his wife and children. No doubt he would have been on the highest level.”
Holman even borrowed some of Lee’s approach to the game.
“He was so good physically and mentally,” Holman says. “I took some of my physical style from Jerome, that kind of bent-over style. I never really knew I was copying him. I learned how to bowl from him the same way a baby learns to talk. I watched him and subconsciously took part of his game.”
Although he never ventured out on a professional career, Lee had quite the amateur résumé. He started his competitive bowling career in 1958, and followed that up with a two-year military stint in Alaska.
Lee found his way to the Rogue Valley in 1965 where he took the local bowling scene by storm. He’s rolled more than 60 300 games, and has recorded more than 20 800 series — his highest was an 836. Lee’s 833 series in the Oregon state tournament held in Portland in 1975 is a record that still stands.
Lee has won numerous tournaments and titles, including 16 Oregon Bowling Association crowns, nine Southern Oregon Association titles, and numerous other Southern Oregon Senior and Rogue Valley Association championships.
He was inducted into the Oregon State Bowling Hall of Fame in 1987 and is a member of the Medford Sports Hall of Fame.
Physically, Lee’s game has slipped, but only slightly. He still maintains a 220 average and bowls in leagues at Roxy Ann and Lava lanes two days a week.
“I’ve changed my game a little,” he admits. “My speed’s down from what it used to be and some things don’t work like they did in the olden days. I know if I hang in there then good things will happen.”
“I go to the local tournaments but I stay away from those high-roller events,” Lee adds. “As the years go by it gets tougher to get those strikes.”
Lee’s wife, Nina, who he met through bowling 55 years ago, says her husband’s drive is still there.
“He’s the first to admit that age has caught up with him,” she says, “but he’s very strong mentally. He’s still very competitive.”
While his competitive victories are numerous, his influence and friendly, easy-going demeanor are what won over his peers.
“If you are fortunate enough to get to know Jerome, you will like him,” says Holman. “He’s very self-deprecating and he doesn’t like to shine the spotlight on himself. Any attention he gets in the media he’d say something like, ‘This is foolish talk,’ or, ‘This is ridiculous.’ But it’s all well-deserving.
“Jerome is loved and respected by everyone.”
There is Jerome Lee’s achievement. Period. The end.