Ethel Morley is not short on confidence.
After a 20-minute conversation with the Courier wraps up, her attention is directed to a bowling lane, where amid high fives and dabs from 20-plus pals, she proclaims: “I’m going to give you a lesson in a couple minutes.”
Morley is wearing an honorary jersey adorned with the number 99, along with a name bar that reads “The Great One.”
Such a site in a hockey rink would be cocky at best, sacrilege at worst.
“Gretzky’s got nothing on you Ethel,” Commodore Lanes league manager Ken Hayden proclaims.
Again with the confidence.
“I’ve been bowling with Ethel for 15 years and she’s the best bowler on our team — that’s what I tell everybody,” Janice, 81, tells the Courier.
Morley first bowled at the Commodore Lanes during the Second World War. On Jan. 16, she turns 99.
“I don’t feel any different and I don’t feel any older,” Morley says.
If friends really are the family we choose, then Morley is surrounded by family, both by blood and by kinship, on a Monday afternoon at Canada’s oldest bowling alley. Commodore Lanes opened on Sept. 8, 1930, when Morley was 10.
About 25 people, mostly women in their 70s, 80s and 90s, are chucking bowling balls down the lanes like nobody’s business.
After six or seven frames, Morley’s got the best score of the four others in her group. Morley may be the oldest person there, but she tosses bowling balls with more pep than anyone else.
And it’s not even close.
“She throws the ball harder than I do,” says Hayden, 14 years her junior.
Bowling may be the tie that binds, but socializing is the straw that stirs the drink for Morley and so many other seniors in their twilight years.
Hayden’s family ran the Varsity Ridge bowling alley for three decades until its closure in 2013. Hayden was 70 at the time and could have easily called it a day. But with somewhere between 300 and 500 bowlers displaced, he moved over to the Commodore to continue on as league manager.
“When people join a bowling league, you know you’re going to meet and mix with other people,” Hayden says. “It doesn’t matter your colour, your age or religion. It brings people together.”
Morley and scores of others followed Hayden’s lead, and the Golden Age Bowlers Club lived to see another day. Some of those in attendance Monday have been bowling alongside Morley for 20 or 30 years.
“Now, most of [her friends] are gone,” Morley’s daughter Toni Crittenden says. “This is very important to her.”
Morley was born in Northern Ireland and arrived in Canada, just outside of Winnipeg, when she was three months old. She got married at 19, and her late husband Walter was a Royal Canadian Air Force mechanic during the Second World War. He was stationed near Jericho Beach, before serving in England and France.
Morley worked at the Bay on Granville Street during the war years. After work, she’d duck over to the Commodore for a couple games in the evening.
“A lot of this area is the same even though it’s got all these new buildings. You can find your way around quite simply,” Morley says. “But this city was going 24 hours a day during the war. Packed street cars. You couldn’t get a seat.”
The post-war years saw the Morleys back in Manitoba, before permanently moving back to Vancouver in 1961 when they bought a house near Dunbar and 23rd.
“It cost us $14,900,” Morley says.
Parts of the 1970s were spent on Vancouver Island, and Morley now lives near Jericho Beach. Her husband died in 1997, and her five sisters are gone as well. Morley had a stroke four years ago, but not much seems to faze her.
The rapid growth of Vancouver is “progress that happens in all cities and towns.”
As for her stroke?
“I’ve had so many surgeries in my lifetime, it was just another thing to deal with,” she says.
Morley is at a loss to explain her longevity. She didn’t adhere to any specific diet or exercise regime, though her mother lived into her early 90s.
Crittenden attributes her mother’s long life to exercise, reading the newspaper “front to back every day” and the kind of companionship she finds at an old barn like the Commodore that’s been left largely unchanged from the Vancouver of yesteryear.
“To see her enjoying this at age 99 is great,” Crittenden says. “I’m pretty proud of that.”