SI Vault
Douglas Campbell
December 07, 1987
In their ignorance, the young women on the Cheers II softball team probably believed they were being respectful when they asked Stasia Czernicki to join them one evening last spring. Softball is not Czernicki's sport and, local legend or not, she wouldn't have been asked at all except that Cheers II was one woman short and facing an automatic forfeit. So they went up into the stands and, after very little pleading, came back with a tall, solidly built and decidedly graying short fielder. And then they said it. "We don't expect a 65-year-old to actually play," they told her. "If the ball comes your way," they said, "just clear out and we'll handle it."
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December 07, 1987

The Leading Light Of Candlepin Bowling

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"When you say bowling, Stasia's is the first name you think of," says Sophie Adams, a New Hampshire homemaker, one of the thousands of television viewers who gather like moths at a porch light when Czernicki appears on the screen.

"She is perfection throwing that ball down the alley. So smooth. There's no extra motion," says Adams, also a grandmother, who admires Czernicki because "she's very...not shy but a little on the reserved side, I think. She doesn't let everyone know how she feels."

A nun is no more proper than Czernicki in public. The propriety shows up in her private world, a world of thoroughly dusted shelves and evenly folded bathroom towels, a world in which every picture of her three children is in its place inside the crisp, white ranch house, and every blade of grass outside is precisely clipped.

Tucked in the basement of the Czernicki home in Webster, about 60 miles southwest of Boston, a modest museum boasts of her accomplishments. There are gold and silver trophies, plaques and cups—some of the more than 300 awards she has won over the last 40 years. You ask Czernicki which one she likes best, and she flops down on the floor and, lying on her side, reaches under a clear acetate film that covers the face of the floor-to-ceiling trophy case along one wall. Her fingers find a statuette on a squat, black base, and she's like a little girl taking her favorite doll from its crib. She begins to reminisce. In her square, strong hands is the evidence of her very first victory, the first solid proof that there was something she could do right. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she admires the fourth-place trophy she won when she was 25 as you might admire your first child.

A few minutes later she is sitting prim and upright on her living room couch. In her white-and-powder-blue polo shirt, her denims and her white leather Nikes, with her gray hair perfectly styled, she looks like your middle-aged neighbor, maybe one whose clean laundry is legendary, certainly one who bakes pies and keeps her home in order, but not one who would admit to a competitive instinct, which, she says uncomfortably, "I think I got from my mother."

Czernicki's mother, Agnes, was born in Wiewiorka, Poland, one of eight children. In 1912, when Agnes was 14, her parents decided that she, as the oldest child, would be the one sent to the New World to take advantage of the opportunities there. Along with her baggage, Agnes brought the expectations of those who did not come. And after she had married John Milas and given birth to a son and two daughters, Agnes let her children know something special was required of them.

"I could never do anything good enough for her," Czernicki recalls. Stasia, the child, would bring an accomplishment to her mother's attention, feeling quite proud. "She would always say, 'It could have been better.' " And the child would drift away, intent on discovering some endeavor through which she could win approval.

Stasia's childhood ended at 14 when she left school to join her older sister in one of Webster's shoe factories. (Her older brother completed high school and trade school because "we just thought it was more important for a man to go to school, to learn a trade.") In the heat and noise of rows and rows of women at sewing machines, Czernicki's natural coordination soon earned her the job of fancy stitcher, doing the toes of wing-tips. But in her off-time she had nothing to replace the games of her childhood and no way to exercise the athletic ability that stirred within.

One day, as she was gazing into the basement window of St. Joseph's grammar school, watching the men below on the four candlepin lanes, it struck her: "I think I'd like this game."

The mill town had factory leagues, and she joined a team, playing at St. Joseph's. At first her ball tended to stay airborne halfway down the alley. Still, the manager of the alley recognized her potential and worked with her to give her control. Soon her scores were tops on her team, and she joined a more competitive league at a commercial bowling lane. Stasia Milas's career, like that of most candlepin bowlers, could have continued in obscurity, limited by child-rearing and employment. But Anthony Czernicki had seen the tall, attractive Stasia bowling with his sister at St. Joseph's in 1940. They started dating, but the war took him to Europe from 1943 until 1946. When he returned, they married. As a husband he offered Stasia the kind of limitless encouragement that, even in the small arena of candlepins, she would need to become a star.

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