Willard Welch treats his pool shooting like a job.
Like clockwork, you can spot the 96-year-old pool player during the lunch hour or on weeknights chalking up his cue and contemplating his next cut shot at Topeka’s Boulevard Billiards.
Welch is one of 70 senior men and women competing in the Dudes and Dudettes, a Monday afternoon pool league at Boulevard for players age 55 and older.
The Dudes and Dudettes aren’t exactly the stereotypical pool players from Hollywood movies who drink, smoke, fight and get themselves into trouble with gambling debts.
Welch doesn’t drink, smoke, fight or gamble, and he goes to church on Sundays.
Most of the Dudes and Dudettes are retirees and grandparents who have found in the game of pool a fun activity to socialize, exercise their brain power and get in a little exercise.
“I’m pretty proud of what we created,” said Bob Reed, Boulevard’s owner-manager. “The players know they’re in a clean, safe environment.”
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Willard Welch has played pool in Topeka for 30 years
Anyone who shoots pool in Topeka knows Welch. Ask him how he’s doing on any given day and you will hear him say, “Fine, thanks to the good Lord!” He has been a beloved member of the Topeka pool-playing community for 30 years.
Welch was born in Gem in 1925. He grew up in St. Marys, where as a boy he delivered groceries on a bicycle. He is a World War II veteran who served in the Navy for two years until the war ended. He also worked as a barber for 26 years.
Although Welch says he has “slowed down a bit,” he still drives himself to the pool hall for daily practice and competes four nights a week.
“Everybody loves him,” says Jan Mattingly, who plays in the league with Bill Mattingly, her husband of 54 years.
Welch is known among players for his humorous stories and his competitiveness on the tables.
“He’s persistent,” Jan Mattingly says. “He never gives up.”
Pool gives men and women the chance to compete together
The terms “pool” or “billiards” are often used interchangeably to refer to the same game. The origins of pool can be traced back to 15th century European royalty and nobility. It was often called “the noble game of billiards.” Billiard historians believe English and Dutch settlers first brought the game to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Pool has evolved over the centuries into a game accessible to people of all backgrounds.
The popularity of pool in the US rose significantly during the last half of the 1900s with the increase of local public pool halls, the development of bar-sized, coin-operated pool tables, and with cultural changes, such as the rise of women pool players.
Although pool is a game where men and women can compete on an even playing field, change didn’t always come easy. The desire to compete with men is what drew a young Dona Huber to the game. Currently a federal employee, Huber started playing pool when she was 18 years old.
In those days, Huber says, women weren’t allowed to play in local pool tournaments, and she found herself in a stubborn battle to enter her first tournament at Topeka’s Windjammer Inn, a bar formerly in White Lakes Mall.
“It was a man’s game back then,” she said.
After the tournament director finally let Huber in, she took third place.
Now 62, Huber says, “It made me feel good to beat men at their own game.”
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Player’s credit pool for longevity
Highly skilled players say at least 75% of pool is an exercise in mental prowess that tests players’ concentration, creativity, problem-solving ability and emotional poise.
“I love pool for that exact reason,” said league player and retiree Warren Harris, 62.
Reta Shoop also enjoys the challenge of playing to stay mentally sharp.
“I like to play people better than me because it makes me think,” Shoop said.
Shoop credits an active life of work, pool and friends for her longevity. She celebrated her 82nd birthday on May 2 by playing with the Dudes and Dudettes.
“You’ve got to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” she said.
‘He will kick your ass any day of the week’
Welch will celebrate his 97th birthday on Aug. 10. Welch said he will probably be shooting pool that day.
“He’s awesome. He’s a wonderful player,” said Huber, adding with a laugh, “He will kick your ass any day of the week.”
At age 96, Welch’s “job” is keeping himself healthy — mentally, socially, spiritually and physically.
Welch’s job is shooting pool.
Lorraine Jessepe is a freelance writer and member of the Native American Journalists Association. She is a five-time Most Valuable Player of the American Pool Players Association and Billiard Congress of America.