She was a brilliant bowler in her day — but not one to boast about it.
When Fran Russell died in the spring, she left her family with a legacy of championship bowling trophies and engraved medals and bracelets, prizes awarded to women who won leagues at Winnipeg’s bowling alleys. As well, the national five-pin champion’s humble spirit.
"She never made a big deal about it to us," says Anne Russell, sitting across from her brother David at her kitchen table covered by their mom’s winnings.
Born Frances Aileen Webster on May 30, 1926 in Winnipeg, the lifelong sports enthusiast would spend much of her 92 years at bustling alleys across the city. Rossmere Lanes, St. James Lanes and Coronation Lanes were her go-tos. It was in those facilities where she practised her strikes and spares, often competing in two leagues every week.
Russell was born and raised in Winnipeg’s West End alongside her three older siblings George, Betsy-May and Mary. She attended Wellington School, General Wolfe Junior High School and Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute, where she found her calling in the schoolyard as an athlete.
She competed in track and field tournaments in high school before becoming a bowler.
While she spent most of her life in Winnipeg, she moved to Calgary briefly to be closer to her brother after graduating from Manitoba Commercial College.
She worked in various business administration roles at the Retail Credit Co., and Canadian Wheat Board in order to afford her hobby and the bus tickets to get to the bowling alley. She relied on Winnipeg Transit all her life; her children have fond memories taking the bus with their parents to their own activities — including bowling leagues, a sport they grew to love thanks to their mother’s encouragement — growing up. Russell whole-heartedly supported both of her children’s involvement with Youth Bowl Canada.
Russell was in her mid-30s when she started winning big. She was on teams crowned champions of house leagues, divisionals, provincials and ultimately, nationals. In 1959, she was a member of the Western Canada Mixed, Western Canada Ladies and Canadian Ladies teams.
Russell’s level-headed character was likely key to her success.
"I don’t ever remember seeing her frazzled or rattled. Everything was very calm and matter-of-fact," David says.
David recalls his mom once being on a team that was under immense pressure during the final frame of a championship match in which each of the four team members had to score either a strike or spare in order to win. And they all did.
Russell wasn’t a superstitious competitor. She didn’t have a pre-game routine or ritual. She simply left her worries on the bench when it was her turn. The ability to do so was, in part, thanks to her supportive husband David G. Russell. The two were married in 1957.
Long after Fran's banner years as a competitive bowler, the rail-car technician continued to encourage his wife to play for fun with friends while he stayed home with their children.
Russell lived the last 20 years of her life without him — a tough task, no doubt, for a woman whose husband was her biggest cheerleader. He died of prostate cancer in 1999.
Russell was diagnosed with cancer when she turned 80, but she died a breast-cancer survivor; her death was due to health complications as a result of old age on May 7.
It was in Russell’s single years that she and her daughter began a weekly dinner-and-drive tradition. She and Anne would dine at a different local restaurant every week and afterwards, drive around the city together to keep tabs on all the local residential and business developments.
"She was a proud Winnipegger, a proud Manitoban," Anne says, adding her parents were known to attend city public-consultation meetings on various issues and provide their input.
David describes his mom as a good neighbour, the woman always calling 311 to fix potholes and deal with post-storm downed tree limbs.
The Russells were active in the city’s cultural scene, Fran carving out time for Folklorama and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet every year. When she and her husband weren’t out on the town, they could be found on the couch of their East Kildonan home cheering on the Jets, Blue Bombers or Winnipeg’s curling champion Jennifer Jones.
Russell tried curling just once, but found her balance was better suited for the squeaky floors of the alley, so she stuck to bowling until she couldn’t play any longer.
"She eventually had to give it up in the 1970s because she had a shoulder injury and she had trouble gripping the bowling ball," Anne says.
David recalls that his mom had to quit after being diagnosed with the painful joint condition of bursitis, which caused her throwing hand to go numb.
While Anne and David can’t quite recall how their mom got into bowling, they are certain she stuck with it because she enjoyed staying in shape and socializing.
Russell took pride in staying fit; David recalls his mother shovelling the snow off her East Kildonan steps after storms at age 88.
She liked to dress up, too. It was a rare occurrence if Fran was without a tinge of rouge lipstick.
"Even when she was having difficulty walking, she’d take a taxi downtown to Portage Place; there was a hair place there she went to," Anne says. "Every second week, she’d get it washed, set or permed."
It was perhaps the repetitive and precise nature of bowling that kept Russell, a detail-oriented woman, enthusiastic about the sport all her life.
She was a planner by every definition — from tracking her medical history in detail, to updating a list of renovations to her home, to filing away current-affairs stories she found interesting in the Free Press, to writing her obituary for the paper.
In that obituary, she wrote about her love for her family, gardening, crossword puzzles, cheering for local sports teams and in brief, her bowling accomplishments.
"Frances enjoyed 5-pin bowling," she wrote. "Especially the competition."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
Updated on Monday, September 16, 2019 at 9:34 AM CDT: Corrects photo cutline