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Boje Looks To The Future... But Never Forgets Bowling's Incredible History 10/28/2015

On our recent trip to Florida, we took some time to visit Jeff Boje With several bowling centers to run and a large family, it would have been easy for Jeff Boje to say that he was much too busy to serve as both BPAA and USBC Presidents or that his health or family issues wouldn't allow it; but he didn't, and by giving back to bowling, he has made it better, and he has earned his place in the history of the game and business he has so much respect for.

How long has the Boje family been in the Bowling business?

"Since my dad opened Marlborough Lanes in St. Louis in 1959. My dad leased it in 1979 and moved to Florida; that is how we ended up in Florida. And then we got the center back in 1988 and re-named it Sunset Lanes. It is 24 lanes, but sits on five acres of land. Within a couple of miles of it is Ray Bluth's center; used to be Stan Musial's center, Nelson Burton's center; Dick Weber's center was a little further north. We all got along tremendously."

It must have been exciting growing up in a place where so much bowling history was being made; not to mention the friends like Don Carter and the Budweiser team guys and Stan Musial and all of the baseball greats in that era? And I can see from all of the photos on the walls of this center that you have great respect and appreciation for that history?

"I do. And I have thought long and hard about that Jim... about why that is so important. You could do some research and find a lot, but I think St. Louis is unique in that great bowlers from the team era like Bluth and Pat Patterson and Weber and others were also bowling proprietors; and that didn't happen as much in the other cities. In most places the great bowlers were separate from the proprietors. In St. Louis, they were one and the same."

That's probably true. Off the top of my head, I know that Bill Lillard and Don Ellis built centers in Houston, and I think there were a few in California, but St. Louis has a reputation for being the center of the bowling universe for the sport in the team era. Tell me about your family here in Florida.

"I have five children. I have a 23 year old son Kelson, a 22 year old daughter Kindle, and 17 year old triplets, two boys Kaleb and Kollin and a girl Kearsten. Our little girl has downs syndrome and autism; and she has brought a great deal of joy to our life. She has taught me lessons that I could not imagine."

Everyone who knows you knows how dedicated you are to your family and how well you have handled having a special needs child. How is Kearsten doing now?
"She is great. She is a typical teenager. She taught me to appreciate people for who they are. She has her level; some people say that downs children are the most joyful people around, and that may be true; but one thing they have going for them is that they don't carry the burdens of life on her shoulders like some of us do. But when it comes to things like rolling the eyes and the condescending attitude that most 16 year olds have, she is every bit a typical teenager. She can be very stubborn and argue with me just like any other kid would."

Is Sherrie involved in the business?

"She helps with the accounting. My sister writes the checks. My dad Bill and I own Brandon Crossroads, my dad owns Sunset Lanes, and my dad and I and my two sisters Christy and Debra each own 25% of this one. There were also centers that we had a few years ago that we no longer have because when we had the triplets, I felt like we needed to reduce the time and expense it took to run them. I think we had 11 centers at one time, and that was just too many."

Knowing you, I'm sure that you don't have this business down to a science and you are still looking for ways to make your centers better, but it sure looks like the hybrid model that you have followed is working because you are enjoying the FEC type revenue while still having plenty of traditional league play. Is that an accurate description?

"Yes. It is never a science. And you are right. There seemed to be a big kick for a long time to throw out all the leagues; but we never did. We never jumped on that bandwagon because of what my grandma told me; and I'm sure other grandmas said it too - "make new friends, but keep the old because one is silver and the other is gold."

I agree. It seemed for a while that some operators believed that league bowlers could be replaced with open play and parties, but proprietors like you have proven that you can have both.

"Absolutely. You do not need to have one or the other. You just need to pay attention to your schedule. I think in this 32 lane center we have just under 1400 league bowlers, and we value every one of them. One of the secrets is to keep long time employees. We had one lady in my dad's center in St. Louis who retired after 50 years. Imagine - 50 years in the same center! We have a good number of 20 or 25 year employees. And we have many customers that have been bowling with us for a very long time. Some of them are third and fourth generation - which really makes me feel old by the way. And one thing I've learned in my old age is that almost everything I learn is because I've screwed up. If you do a lot, you screw up a lot. Thomas Edison once said some- thing like 'I didn't invent the light bulb before I found about a million ways not to make a light bulb.' I guess what I'm saying is don't be afraid to try new things."

I am hearing that like most successful people, you are a risk taker.

"I guess I am. Sometimes, it costs us money, but we always learn something, even if it is simply what not to do the next time."

You were also the first modern proprietor who was willing to sacrifice the time that it took away from your centers to serve as President of the USBC; and you set an example for others, like our young friend Frank Wilkinson, who is the current President. Why did you do that, and what did you learn from that experience?

"I have to tell you, I sat and talked with one of the best people that has ever been in bowling just a few months before he died - the great Darold Dobs, and I developed a real respect for him. He had a big impact on me. Flora Mitchell, coming from Missouri was another one although I did not know her quite as well. I never saw these people as adversaries. I think because almost all of the proprietors in our area in St.Louis were bowlers, we always thought it was just one and the same. We didn't learn to dislike each other. That background made it easy for me to work with the USBC. They have a mission that is very important; and that is to protect our sport. You mentioned Frank Wilkinson. I want to brag about something. When I was president of BPAA, we started a program called the "Young Guns." Frank got involved because of that program. Nancy Shenk was another one. I was also the guy who got Andrew Cain on the board when others thought he was too young. That is bragging a little, but I am proud of it be- cause I got young people involved who are still involved."

It sounds like you believe in serving and then passing the torch? In mentoring younger people and giving them a chance to succeed?

"Yes. It's ironic because I feel a little guilt still being Treasurer; but I guess they wanted me because I have that skill set. I would rather just mentor other people and stay out of the politics. But I need some involvement; otherwise it would be difficult to bring others along."

What kind of report card would you give BPAA and USBC at this point? We know you were heavily involved in creating the International Bowling Campus with people like John Berglund and Frank DeSocio, and you told me in 2010 that it would take at least ten years to work out all of the kinks and stabilize. We are now almost six years down that road. In your view, how is it going?

"It may take even a little longer than that. Think about it - we have a culture of 100 years. You just don't change that very quickly."

But are they on the right track now?

"They brought in Upson and Johnson and that really did not work well; but now it seems like the two bowling guys, DeSocio and Murphy have made some corrections."

Would you agree with me that it took courage for the BPAA and USBC boards to make tough decisions and change direction?

"Yes. And I think that Chad and Frank being friends outside of the office will help too. They seem to have had mutual respect for each other as people even prior to their positions right now. It takes a long time to fix what took 100 years to break. I know there are still people who think USBC should have stayed in Milwaukee, but I think it just had to be done. I am still sad today when I think about the letters I got during the change from people in Milwaukee, because I know a lot of people who worked in that building were hurt. It was one of the saddest things I was ever a part of. They are good people who had families and just could not make the move. I will always remember how tough it was. But there are also others that did make the move and are really enjoying life in Texas. It brought a lot of pain, a lot of tears, and a lot regrets, but I am still positive that it was the right thing to do.

At 52, your accomplishments in bowling are very impressive; but you are still relatively young. What would you like to do next?

"There is a lot. There are certain things with special needs children I would like to accomplish. I promised myself that before I die, I will try to strike down the exemption for churches from the Americans with Disabilities Act. That is going to be very difficult, but it needs to happen. There are personal things ahead, and the role I want to play in bowling is to make sure people don't forget history. Don't live in the past - but know our history and be proud of it. Live in the future, but don't forget the past."

Our friend and your fellow Floridian John Davis was fond of saying "those who forget history are doomed to repeat it." Agree?

"Absolutely. John was a great man, and that is a role I want to play like he did - remind people to study and respect history. I want to inspire people who are in their 30's or younger to speak up. Don't be afraid to offer ideas and don't be intimidated at the board tables. I am so proud of that Young Guns group because many of them have become leaders and many more will in the future."

Article was posted with permission from Stars & Strikes, America's Bowling Newsmagazine.

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