ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Stop in the Hillsboro Senior Center around 2 p.m. during the week and catch the sights and sounds coming from an area with two pool tables: the crack of breaking pool balls, low chuckles of laughter and a pervasive atmosphere of camaraderie.
On any given day, eight to 10 seniors-between the ages of about 65 to 85-gather informally to play eight-ball pool for about two hours.
“Many have asked me whether we gamble, and we don’t,” said Ray Franz of Hillsboro. “Guys don’t tell off-color jokes or cuss. It’s a wholesome thing.”
Although they know who wins, the group doesn’t keep track of scores or keep daily records of winners and losers.
Franz said the competition is lighthearted and fleeting.
“We may act like we’re excited, but it’s a very temporary thing,” he said. “You may think one day that you’re the greatest player around and the next day, you aren’t.”
The group-they stress they are not to be called members-is loosely composed of Franz, Harold Pankratz, Ivan Weibert, Wes Pankratz, Oliver Mohn, Art Flaming, Leland Kaiser, Andy Krause, Glenn Goertz, Wilbur Hanneman, Dave Weibert and Ron Freeman.
They play with as few as two players, but usually that doesn’t happen as the afternoon gets underway and stray players meander in by 2:30 p.m.
“We try to have two at each table,” Harold Pankratz said. “Or if we have three, two will play the one that breaks. And if we have four, it’s two against two.”
Although the Hillsboro players have the option of joining an organized senior-center pool league, they decided not to.
Wilbert Schmidt of the Goessel Senior Center and his fellow players did decide to join the league.
“We have two tournaments-one the first and third Thursday of every month we play pool,” Schmidt said.
The league is composed of senior members from about 10 towns. They hold tournaments from September through the end of April.
The towns involved in tournament play are Newton, McPherson, Hesston, Moundridge, Inman, Goessel, Buhler, Marquette and Lindsborg. Abilene will join the league sometime this year.
About eight to 14 players from each center compete.
“The purpose is socializing mostly, having a good time, and it’s competition,” Schmidt said. “Most men like competition. It provides an outlet for their competitive spirit. I think it’s a healthy competition.
“We keep it on a strictly friendly basis. We don’t allow any swearing or coaching.”
And what about senior women playing pool?
“A couple of times Marquette has had some ladies playing,” Schmidt said. “That’s the only town that I know of that has had some ladies.”
Schmidt said he thought the league had been in existence for about 10 to 12 years.
“It’s really filled a need for some of these gentlemen who can’t work anymore and don’t have that much to do,” Schmidt said.
The league usually plays about 55 tournament games in a year.
At the end of each season, the league has an invitational tournament of the three best players from each senior center.
Meeting in either McPherson or Hesston during the latter part of April or early May, players compete to determine a pool-league champion.
No trophies are awarded, Schmidt said. Winners just have the satisfaction of being the top player in the league for that year.
“We invited Hillsboro to join (the league), but they declined,” Schmidt said.
Franz said he approached each Hillsboro pool player about joining the other senior centers in tournament play.
“The other centers were very kind-they asked us about three or four times,” Franz said.
But the Hillsboro group was concerned about committing the time needed to participate in a league.
“That’s playing two tournaments a month that last for three to four hours (each), and then your driving time,” Franz said. “So we just chose that wasn’t what we wanted to do.”
Pankratz added, “We’re doing it for enjoyment and exercise.”
Pankratz plays golf in the morning and he’s also the custodian at the Hillsboro Senior Center.
“I’m there most of the time because I clean on Tuesdays and Fridays,” Pankratz said. “I don’t play until after I’m through cleaning, and that’s usually around 3 p.m. So I usually get an hour in on those days.”
The group originally played on one pool table.
“It was getting so raggedy we had it re-covered,” Pankratz said. “Then we decided there were more people coming in, so we decided to buy another table.”
The group donated about $1,700, which was used to re-cover the original table two years ago and buy a new $1,500 pool table six months ago.
“We didn’t prorate each player,” Franz said. “We just said, ‘How much would you like to give if you’re going to play?'”
Franz stressed that no money for pool comes out of the Senior Center budget.
Even their coffee break around 3 p.m.-usually with cookies and coffee-is financed by the players.
“We put money in a kitty for things like that,” Franz said. “And I bring my own Dr. Pepper.”
For 50 years, Franz owned and operated what is now Dale’s Supermarket in Hillsboro.
“I still go there two to three times a day,” Franz said. “I like to go to the store and see all the people.”
Why does he come to the Senior Center to play pool?
“That’s kind of a secret with me,” Franz said. “I was the oldest of seven kids, and we used to have a board at home. We played a lot of table games.”
The game they played had pockets like a modern-day pool table, and they used their finger to hit objects into the pockets.
But Franz and the other players at the Senior Center acknowledged one of their group has the most pool-playing experience and is the best player.
“We try not to think about who wins most of the time, but usually Ivan (Weibert) does,” Pankratz said. “He has the most experience-he used to run a billiard hall in Burlington.”
Weibert said he owned his establishment for about 20 years.
“They generally call me ‘Slick,'” Weibert said with a twinkle in his eye one afternoon last week.
He backed up his moniker with a quick eight-ball shot that banked off the rail and into a corner pocket-a pretty slick shot to be sure.
A crowd of five comrades smiled with approval.
“Every once in a while, I make a slop shot,” Weibert said. “So they all hold their noses.”
As the sound of gospel music played in the background on the boom box, the group talked about past and future games they’ve played.
In the past, they’ve invited members of other senior centers to play pool, but these games have nothing to do with the scheduled league tournaments.
“We’ve played McPherson on their tables,” Franz said. “We kept score and we got beat. But Goessel-we’ve always won.”
On July 25, Goessel pool players are invited to play in Hillsboro.
“We’re going to have them back over here in the morning,” Pankratz said. “We’ll eat dinner and finish in the afternoon.”
Whether playing Goessel or gathering informally in Hillsboro, Pankratz said he keeps it all in perspective.
“It’s a lot of fun, and it keeps you out of mischief.”