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After 50 years in the sport, Wabasha's O'Reilly to receive national honor for service, dedication to bowling

74-year-old Jim O'Reilly will receive a national award for his service and dedication to the sport he's embraced the last 50-plus years, bowling.

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Coach Jim O’Reilly cheers for his team during an all-conference tournament on March 8, 2020, at Concord Lanes in St. Paul.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin file photo
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Late this month, Wabasha’s Jim O’Reilly will be in Las Vegas, accepting one of bowling’s most prestigious national awards.

It’s not the 74-year-old’s ability to consistently knock down pins that has drawn attention, though he’s no slouch there, with a couple of 300 games to his credit.

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It’s O’Reilly’s promotion of bowling and the care he’s provided to the bowling communities in southeastern Minnesota that has been so revered.

But just don’t ask the ever-humble O’Reilly to vouch for himself here, even though he’s devoted nearly all of his adult life to bringing joy through this game.

On Thursday, April 28, O’Reilly will receive the Joyce Deitch Unity Award, a national prize given annually to a person who’s made contributions in bowling with their motivation, vision and leadership.

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“This has a lot of meaning for me, and I’m humbled by it,” said O’Reilly, longtime owner of Riverboat Lanes in Wabasha, a family-run operation. “I’m pleased that someone saw enough in me that they wanted to nominate me. I think there are a lot of people in this country who are more deserving of it than I am, who’ve done even more in developing the future of our sport.”

Don’t count Teri Haugh among any doubters.

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Coach Jim O'Reilly fist bumps Winona's Angie Lehnertz, right, as her teammate, Kylie Ulbrich looks on during an all-conference tournament on March 8, 2020, at Concord Lanes in St. Paul.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin file photo

Haugh, also a bowling business “lifer” like O’Reilly, has for decades watched and interacted with this native of Zumbrota as he’s gone non-stop as a traveling bowling sales representative, a high school bowling coach, accompanied youth to Junior Gold national tournaments, been a member of the U.S. Bowling Teaching Academy and a bowling pro shops governing board member, run countless tournaments at Riverboat Lanes, conducting bowling clinics that have occasionally included some of the best professional bowlers in the world, and been there for anybody and everybody who’s shown any interest in his beloved bowling, providing so much of that tender-loving care at his Riverboat Lanes.

He’s special. And if it truly does take one to know one, Haugh is the perfect witness. The 58-year-old and Faribault resident was the national choice for the Joyce Deitch Unity Award in 2020.

“Neither one of us has ever really taken a breath from bowling,” Haugh said. “It’s the way he lives his life that makes Jim special. He has always supported anything and everything in this industry. But the best thing about him is he is 150 percent genuine. There isn’t a person who knows Jim who wouldn’t drop everything to help him.”

O’Reilly got his first taste of bowling in the seventh grade. The introduction for this farm kid and all-around athlete came via a physcal education class, the students asked to give bowling a try that day at a recently built bowling establishment in Zumbrota.

O’Reilly recalls sprinting into the place, he was so excited about the introduction.

Little did he know that the magical sound of pins rattling that he’d listen to the next hour, would be his destiny.

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Farming and high school sports teams took too much of O’Reilly’s time for him to settle into bowling until years later. But once he did, subbing in for a friend in a bowling league one night while a student at Rochester Junior College, it was over with. He was hooked — forever.

That was in 1965.

“I’d grabbed a pair of (bowling) house shoes and a No. 6 ball,” O’Reilly recalled. “It didn’t take long before I was bowling in three to four leagues at a time.”

It also didn’t take long before he went from avid bowler, to making the game his life’s work, starting with managing the bowling establishment in Zumbrota. From there, it was on to a job he’s held since 1974, working for bowling distributor Bobs’ Business Inc., O’Reilly traveling the upper Midwest selling bowling equipment and often working as a bowling lanes repairman along his routes.

He’s spread his goodwill and bowling passion at every stop. And he does the same thing on a daily basis, at Riverboat Lanes.

People and bowling. They are the perfect mix for this 74-year-old, his life’s mission.

It’s one that has no end in sight.

“I’ll stay in this until the day they plant me in the earth,” O’Reilly said. “I love it.”

Pat has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter since 1994. He covers Rochester John Marshall football, as well as a variety of other southeastern Minnesota football teams. Among my other southeastern Minnesota high school beats are girls basketball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls track and field, high school and American Legion baseball, volleyball, University of Minnesota sports (on occasion) and the Timberwolves (on occasion). Readers can reach Pat at 507-285-7723 or pruff@postbulletin.com.
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