RUMFORD — More than 70 years after he bowled for the first time, John Kezal has been recognized by his peers for 50-plus years of running the Monday Night Pine Tree League at Oxford Lanes Bowling and Recreation Center.

Kezal’s storied history goes back to 1940, when he was a 10-year-old grammar school student who bowled for the first time while working as a pin-setter at the now-defunct Oxford Avenue Bowling Center.

“I would get out of school around 4 p.m. and would hop over to the bowling alley for two or three hours to set up pins,” Kezal said. “They had guys like you and me setting up pins after they were knocked over, and when people weren’t there, me and my friend would bowl. I’d set up pins for my friend and he’d bowl two strings, and then he’d set up pins for me and I’d bowl two strings.”

He was paid three cents per string, though Kezal said that was “really good money” in the ’40s.

In 1945, Kezal shifted to the Rumford Mechanics Institute, more commonly known now as the Greater Rumford Community Center, where he received seven cents a string to set pins.

He graduated in 1949 and was hired at the Oxford Paper Co., where he worked as a paper machine mechanic.

Kezal’s path quickly shifted again in 1951, when he joined the United States Coast Guard and served from 1951 to 1954 as an engine room fireman on many weather patrols in the North Atlantic and South Atlantic oceans.

While on shore leave in 1953, Kezal said he met his wife, Ann, at a basketball game in Lewiston. Shortly after, he left the Coast Guard and returned to work at the mill, where he was soon laid off.

He relocated to the Rumford Mechanics Institute, serving as an activities director for the children in the area.

“I did all kinds of things there,” Kezal said. “I would run the bowling alley, pingpong tournaments and would show movies to the grammar school and high school students. Anything to keep the kids off of the streets and in a safe environment.”

Whether he was working at Oxford Paper Company, serving in the Coast Guard or acting as activity director at the Rumford Mechanics Institute, bowling remained a large part of Kezal’s life.

In 1957, both the Oxford Paper Co. and the American Legion attempted to organize their own bowling team, and in both instances, Kezal was contacted in regards to helping with the organization.

“I was called to a meeting with a group of people at the mill,” Kezal said. “The public relations coordinator of the mill, Al Miller, said that he wanted to form an inter-mill bowling tournament between Oxford Paper Co., Jay International Mill, S.D. Warren Paper Mill in Westbrook and the Brown Co. in Berlin, New Hampshire.

“The mill would allow each bowler to invite their wife or girlfriend to come to the tournament, and they’d pay for all of the expenses that took place,” Kezal said. “We ended up voting to discontinue the tournament in 1990.”

In 1963, Kezal was rehired at Oxford Paper Co. and remained there until he retired in 1992. He became president of the Monday Night Pine Tree League at the Oxford Lanes Bowling and Recreation Center, which opened for the first time in September 1963.

“I was elected president of the league the day it started,” Kezal said with a smile. “There was a group of bowlers interested in bowling, and I was able to get one running. Later, I helped other bowlers organize their own leagues within Oxford Lanes. Sometimes, I would help run them when the other presidents were working at the mill or couldn’t be there.”

For almost 51 years, Kezal has remained at the helm of the Pine Tree League at Oxford Lanes, even though a majority of his time is consumed by other duties, including serving on the Maine Veterans’ Home Board of Trustees, which governs the state’s six veterans’ homes.

At the end of April, Kezal was awarded a special plaque by the owners of Oxford Lanes and the several bowling teams at Oxford Lanes for the 50 years that he had served as president of the Pine Tree League.

“It was amazing to receive that,” Kezal said, smiling. “Bowling has been a big part of my life. It was nice to have them do something like that. I had great people helping me over the years. I was elected president from Day 1, but I had a good secretary and a good finance person helping me out. It’s been a good working relationship to keep this league running.”

It has been fun, he said.

“There’s still a lot of people I keep in touch with from over the years, and the most important thing is the memories. This has been a great, fun thing over the years, serving as president of the league. It’s something you never forget.”

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