Silvio “Sil” Angelotti was to candlepin bowling what Johnny Appleseed and Will Rogers were to the heartland of America — larger than life.
You may have known about his family bowling alley complex on Primrose Street and the elegant homes he used to build. You may have recognized his strong business sense and passion for his Italian heritage.
But, as I reflect upon his recent death at age 87, what you probably didn’t see was the man behind the scenes, the qualities of life that were not always so obvious.
He promoted his sport to the ultimate — while always using bowling to help others. The special needs children he catered to at Pilgrim Lanes month after month were just as important to him as the bowling stars who flocked to his arena.
Sil liked nothing more than to give some underprivileged or handicapped child a fighting chance to build some self esteem. I know. More than once, he’d call to remind me of his handicapped league and the Down’s syndrome child who rolled 100.
“He’s special,” Sil would tell me, “but not physically or mentally. Because he could roll 100, others also felt they had that chance. The kid is building bridges for his peers. Bowling can do that.”
No doubt, Haverhill has always been a hotbed for candlepins. While Sil held court on one end of the city, his counterpart Ernie DiBurro served as Sil’s bookend at Academy Lanes in Bradford. And somewhere in the middle, you had St. Joseph’s Alleys.
Out of these three institutions came some of the finest bowlers this world has seen. Yes, the best in the world. Okay, so candlepins are only popular in northern New England, but it’s no fault of the gurus who’ve continuously promoted the sport.
The sight of Don Gillis hosting his TV specials at Pilgrim Lanes drew the cream of this crop to our city. At Pilgrim, bowlers like the Sargents (Mike and Chris) set their world standards. And others too numerous to mention also bowled great totals.
I use the Sargents because both father-and-son will testify to the credibility of candlepin bowling in Haverhill and the work done by Sil Angelotti and Ernie DiBurro to enhance it.
I recall one situation when the Armenian youth conducted an Olympics here and bowling was on the agenda. I approached Sil and wondered if he could entertain 50 youngsters.
The guy laid out the red carpet, even fed them pizza and soft drinks, and charged them only for shoes. I suppose they had to pay for something.
I don’t know how many out there would remember inveterate road runner Siggy Podlozny. When Siggy passed, he left behind enough trophies to open an Emblem & Badge. A day or two after the funeral, they were all out in the trash.
Because we lived close by, the sight of such a doomed legacy bothered me immensely. What’s to be done with a cache of old trophies ready for the scrap heap? I transported them all home until I found another place for them.
One day at Pilgrim Lanes, I said to Sil, “Look, I have about 200 discarded trophies in my basement, left behind by a real gentleman.”
“Bring them here and I’ll find them a worthy cause,” Sil answered back.
That year and the next, every single kid in Sil’s handicapped league got one of Siggy’s trophies, but only after Sil removed all the plates, polished them up and replaced the running heads in favor of bowling. Many of the others were simply generic awards.
If there was one too many stories about candlepin bowling in the Gazette, go ahead and blame Sil. When he spoke, you answered his call. Maybe it was the face. Or his heart. Or the hands that gifted you a stack of bowling passes whenever he saw you.
“Haven’t seen you in awhile,” he would say. “Bring the family.”
What Sil and Ernie did for Haverhill, Tony Baldinelli did for Amesbury. He was another icon in this sport. His daughter Toni Marie followed in her dad’s footsteps. Toni was one of the greatest female bowlers of her time.
Well, when the Amesbury business changed hands, where do you think the daughter wound up? Right there at Pilgrim, working with Sil and his boys, giving special programs.
There’s something to be said for family businesses in our city. The Angelotti brothers and their sister are certainly chips off their dad’s block.
Sil must have discovered that perpetual fountain of youth. He never really aged, maintaining his vitality well into his 80s. He could often be seen playing softball, hockey and other sports with his children.
Two of his favorite organizations were the AmVets and Sons of Italy. Sil was a proud World War II veteran, having served under General George Patton in the Battle of the Bulge.
He built homes. He built his bowling alley. He built dreams. He built character. Of all the pins, he was the king.
Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.