Walter Russell stands by the red chair that his father sits in to greet guests that make their way into Russell Family Bowling Center.
When Walter Russell walks into his business, it is so dark and quiet you could hear a pin drop; a bowling pin, that is. Then, Russell makes his way around the tall, red-top counter, turns on the lights, and brings the bowling lanes to life.
All of Monroe County loves the bowling alley, with no one more appreciative than Russell himself. When the establishment was relinquished from its previous ownership, it was bought by him.
His commitment to bowlers and bowling itself has been his driving force. It all started when he was younger, when his dad taught him to love the sport.
“He was in the Navy and retired and came back home, and he bowled leagues here; but I used to go with him even in Pensacola to bowl and learn how to keep score at a young age—in fifth grade,” Russell says. “The bowlers were excited they didn’t have to sit down there and keep score.”
Russell Family Bowling Center coined its name from Russell’s love for not only the sport, but his family. His dad, who recently turned 92, has been a support system throughout not only his life, but his time as a business owner. His dad even has a tall, glossy red seat reserved for him behind the counter.
Residents Richard and Diana Yoho have known the bowling alley as a staple of Monroe County since before Russell’s ownership.
“I don’t know exactly when the bowling alley opened up the very first time, but I do know it has been there since 1965,” Richard says. “And a lot of the people that are there started there when they were kids and their parents were involved, so it has been a figure of Monroe County here … for decades.”
What keeps the Yohos coming back? The answer is simple—it’s Russell.
“It’s easy to get enthusiastic when you’ve got somebody like Walter behind the drive,” Richard says.
The Yohos say everyone knows the name “Walter Russell,” not just avid bowlers. Some may know him from church or from his time coaching the local high school bowling teams.
Addason Tomlin is a sophomore at a local high school and has been bowling ever since she was younger. It is an activity that has brought her closer with her brothers. Tomlin says Russell Family Bowling Center is one of her favorite places.
“I’ve accomplished so many things in bowling—learning how to be patient, talk to people,” Tomlin says. “It also helps with stress.”
Russell, like Tomlin, believes bowling is so much more than the sport itself.
“It’s important to find something to do outside instead of sitting around on technology,” Russell says. His drive for coaching comes from this ideology and the hope that many of the students will continue to bowl after high school, in the adult leagues.
“Everybody just tries to help everybody out as far as if you need a replacement, if you need a fill-in, if you need guidance, it’s just one big group of people that come together,” Diana, who currently plays in adult leagues, says. “We definitely have a lot of fun.”
Every year, on top of hosting birthdays and daily bowling games, the alley hosts a bowling tournament and collaborates with local businesses to help sponsor and provide cash awards to the winners. The tournament lasts about 30 weeks and consists of head-to-head games. This year, Russell says, there will be a guaranteed $200 cash prize every week for the winner.
For Russell, the space has evolved into a centralized location of togetherness. Today, Russell says, families don’t spend enough time together. He sees kids dropped off by their parents who then drive away.
“Not enough families now get out with their kids,” he says.
The business was built off the back of family- and the future of the beloved bowling alley depends on the next generation.
“[I’m] hoping for the longevity of it that remains open well after I’m gone, whether I own it, till I pass or whatever,” Russell says. “I’ll get people [who] have asked me, especially the league, ‘Are you tired of it yet?’ Nope, [I] enjoy it too much.”