At 88, Debenham shows no signs of slowing down
At 88 years old, a lot of men spend their time parked in front of a television set to pass the time. Their days of physical activity are far behind them.
Bud Debenham is a big exception to that mindset. The Carson City octogenarian, a former American Bowling Congress all-around champion in the late 70s, gets more exercise than a lot of guys half his age. He bowls twice a week at the Gold Dust West Bowling Center where he carries averages of 190 and 184, respectively, and plays golf when the weather allows him to, and breaks 100 most of the time, according to longtime friend Richard Sullivan.
When you ask Debenham, who has lived in Nevada since 2004, what keeps him coming back to bowling year after year, he doesn’t hesitate in responding.
“The people,” he said. “I love the game and the people that are here. I like the association with the guys. There aren’t many people that I don’t like.
“The game has given me a lot of fun, more than I ever expected.”
Bowlers feel the same way about Debenham.
The camaraderie is evident, especially in the Thursday Senior Trio League. Players exchange high-fives or fist bumps after every spare or strike no matter who rolled them. In this world of fierce competition, it’s certainly refreshing to see.
“I’ve bowled with Bud for 10 years now and he’s just a super guy,” said Fred Taylor, one of Debenham’s teammates on Thursday. “He’s also a heck of a golfer.”
“He was the keys to the piano; the piano has 88 keys,” said Sullivan, who is retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department. “He’s an inspiration to everybody. He’s bowled for so many years.”
Debenham, a retired Los Angeles fire captain, started bowling while working swing shift at Lockheed in Southern California.
“When I got off work, the only things open were bowling alleys and movie theaters,” Debenham said. “I bowled at the Figueroa Sports Center. I was 19. I had a high backswing and threw the ball 90 miles per hour.
“There was a guy sitting (behind the lanes) and asked if I minded if he gave me some advice. He said you can’t do the high backswing and to shorten my approach. My average went up to 180-something. They didn’t have instructors back then. At the scoring table there was a little booklet on how to bowl, and I tried to follow that.”
Debenham continued to bowl and continued to improve. He was in charge of the sports activities for the fire department, and would organize yearly tournaments.
The veteran bowler regrets that he doesn’t have a perfect game on his resume. Debenham has rolled two 299 games and his high series is 758. He left a 10-pin on a Brooklyn hit in the first near 300 game. He said he doesn’t remember much about the second 299, but that he assumes it was either a 7-pin or a 10-pin that he left.
While Debenham doesn’t have a perfect game, he has something all bowlers would covet – a national championship.
Debenham won the 1977 American Bowling Congress Tournament all-events title at the Reno Centennial Coliseum. In those days, the ABC would rent out a convention center or arena and construct the lanes rather than bowl at an already built alley.
Debenham rolled a record 2,117 for nine games (267-216-233 for 716 in the team event, 266-192-195 for 653 in singles and 256-257-235 for 748 in doubles), beating Eddie Lubanski’s 1959 record of 2,116.
The all-events record has since been broken several times. Ron Vokes of Racine, Wisc. rolled a 2,321 at the 2009 USBC Open, breaking the mark of Stephen Hardy of New Hampshire, who rolled a 2,279 in Montana back in 2002.
Debenham chalked up 66 strikes in nine games, only the sixth man up to that point to accomplish that feat.
“I didn’t know what the record was,” Debenham told Joe Lyou of the Pacific Bowler back in 1977. “I just can’t believe it. I thought when I led LABA (Los Angeles Bowling Association) members with a 207 average that nothing could top it, But this is unbelievable.”
Added Debenham: “I got lined up right away, and that made the difference.”
What makes it all the more remarkable is that Debenham was a sub on a “Booster” team out of Los Angeles where he was a past association president. Debenham said he had told teams that if they needed a sub he was available.
“One of the guys had a heart attack and I took his place,” Debenham said. “Fortunately, I had a good day.”
The championship certainly wiped out the frustration of his 1972 performance when he recorded a paltry score of 1,420 in Long Beach. His top score was 508 in doubles. He failed to break 500 in either team or singles. His 1977 score represented an increase of 697 pins, an improvement of 77 pins per game.
Debenham, who moved to Carson City from Eagle, Idaho, has suffered a stroke and heart attack in recent years, but he keeps battling back and participating in the sports he loves, earning the respect of anybody who comes in contact with him.