Twice in her lifetime, Farrell Gruenbaum broke the arm she bowls with. But anyone who knows Gruenbaum, who will celebrate her 100th birthday in January and bowled league for more than 80 years, understands that a broken arm is hardly enough to keep her off the lanes.
“She bowled with her left hand instead,” says Audrey Fink, Gruenbaum’s longtime bowling companion. “I would have just stayed home and sat in my chair, but she would bowl with the opposite hand. So she was very, very devoted to bowling. She was just there all the time.”
“She’s quite a hoot, Farrell, I’ll tell ya,” says Marie Benefiel, who still bowls league at age 92 with the bowling ball she bought for 50 cents at a second-hand store more than 40 years ago. “She’s done a lot in her lifetime. And if she was able, she’d still do more.”
There is always more to do when you’re Farrell Gruenbaum. And if time is finally slowing her down these days, she’s not letting on.
“I don’t think my work is done here,” Gruenbaum says. “I look forward to the 19th of January—that will be my 100th birthday—and I look forward to living on.”
Gruenbaum has done enough living for several lifetimes by now, and she remembers every one of them: Days working at the shoe factory for 12-and-a-half cents an hour when she was 14 years old and the five bucks a week she made was enough to pay the rent; days when she worked as a navigational instrument repairperson in the U.S. Army during a time when hardly anyone heard of women joining the military; days when she hunted for the food she ate—rabbits and pheasants, in particular.
“Oh yeah, I hunt and fish. I gave that up about a year ago,” Gruenbaum says. “I went fishing three years ago. We’ve got a lake nearby where I live and I was driving at that time, so it was no problem to go fishing.”
Gruenbaum was a young and sprightly 96 years old then, still living life the same way she always has—as fully as she possibly can. Somewhere along her way through the military and 37 years in the shoe factory, Gruenbaum also found time to own and operate her own restaurant for nearly 10 years—Farrell’s Coffee Shop in her native Vandalia, Ill.—and become an all-star pitcher on a traveling softball team.
“She was one heck of a softball pitcher,” says Glenda Lawler, who bowled with Gruenbaum for nearly 70 years. “Her reputation was spread all over southern Illinois. She was always recognized as an outstanding softball pitcher.”
Gruenbaum (second from left) with her teammates at the 1970 WIBC tournament
“I traveled all over the United States playing ball,” Gruenbaum recalls. “And we played with some people who were in the business of playing ball.”
And through it all one constant remained until a bad hip forced her to give it up last December: her inexhaustible love of bowling.
It’s a love that took her from coast to coast and all points in between as she gathered her team of girls and went to wherever the latest Women’s International Bowling Congress tournament happened to be—Tulsa in ’70, St. Louis in ’82, Niagara Falls in ’84.
“We’d been to Syracuse, and from New York to California to Florida and all around,” Gruenbaum recalls. “Every summer we’d be somewhere bowling.”
But it wasn’t always just the girls from back home she went bowling with. One day, it was two of the most famous bowlers of her era, as Gruenbaum and Lawler were chosen to bowl alongside Dick Weber and Billy Welu in an exhibition.
“Oh, it was fun! We had a lot of fun and of course they were in their best form too,” Gruenbaum remembers. “They enjoyed it and put on a good show. I’d still be bowling if I could. I loved it. I cried when I had to quit.”
But even Gruenbaum has to admit that when she looks back, there certainly is nothing to cry about. The bowling may be done, but life is not.
She still loves bingo and heads out to play several nights a week. She still gets up in the morning and fixes breakfast for herself like anybody else. And if you think she leaves the housework to helpers, think again.
A young Farrell Gruenbaum (middle) with her WIBC teammates
“I do one thing at a time to kind of clean things up around the house, you know, so I don’t get behind with it,” Gruenbaum says. “Every day I try to do one thing. I do what I can to be up on my feet.”
But even when she sits down for a rest, Farrell Gruenbaum still has plenty of places to go as she wanders through the many memories she made over the years.
“I like to go over my pictures and look at all my bowling pictures,” she says. “I’ve got a trunk full of bowling pictures. And my softball team—I’ve got a lot of them, too.”
“I think I have had a good life,” she adds. “The Lord has been good to me.”