Honor Roll: Remembering Lynn Candlepin Bowling Legend Tony Leo

There is no higher honor in candlepin bowling than being inducted into the International Candlepin Bowling Association (ICBA) Hall of Fame.

Anthony “Tony” Leo received that prestigious award in 1999 with his proud family in attendance at the induction dinner in Haverhill.

Bob Leo, Tony Leo, and John Leo, owners of Post Office Lanes in Lynn and Metro Bowl in Peabody, are pictured at the Candlepin Bowling Hall of Fame Dinner in 1999 when Tony Leo became an inductee, taking his rightful place alongside the sport’s greatest professional

Tony earned his seat in the Hall of Fame’s “Competitive Ability” category for an extraordinary bowling career that included 28 appearances on Don Gillis’ “Candlepin Bowling” Show and an All-State Bowling title in 1964.

But Tony and his family, including his brothers, Bob Leo and John Leo, and their father, John Leo, could have easily entered the Hall in the “Contributors” category as well, for no family in the history of bowling on the North Shore has given more to the game and brought more joy to bowlers of all ages than the Leos.

Tony Leo, one of the all-time candlepin greats who with his family built a candlepin empire that included ownership of Post Office Lanes in Lynn, Metro Bowl in Peabody, and Leo’s Super Bowl in Amesbury, died on May 29. He was 90 years old.

The Leo children – Susan, Linda, and Michael – had a front row seat for their father’s greatness as a bowler. Just how cool was it for the Leo kids to have their dad bowling on television when the show was drawing tens of thousands of viewers across New England each week. Tony Leo was a candlepin bowling celebrity and a respected ambassador for the popular sport.

Tony was admired for his sportsmanship during competition. He never became flustered by a Half Worcester, Spread Eagle, or the last of the Four Horsemen not toppling. He pressed on and many say his calm demeanor made him a master at picking single pins in clutch situations.

Tony didn’t throw the ball as fast as some of his fellow competitors, but no one was more precise in his accuracy or textbook in his delivery.

Beginnings in Lynn

Susan Leo Black said her father, Tony, and his brothers, John and Bob, took over the ownership of Post Office Lanes, a 10-alley facility downstairs from the old Lynn Post Office building on Western Avenue, from their father, John.

In 1976, the family purchased Metro Bowl, a popular, well-run establishment now under the stewardship of Bob Leo. Tony Leo and his son, Michael, later owned and operated Leo’s Super Bowl in Amesbury.

“I was a young kid when he bowled on Channel 5 for the first time in the early 60s,” recalled Susan. “He won the state tournament in 1964 at Fairway Sportsworld in Natick.”

Susan’s mother, the late Ruth Leo, was also an outstanding candlepin bowler and won a major tournament in 1961. She also appeared on the Channel 5 TV bowling show.

“Her biggest accomplishment was beating Stasia Czernicki, who was quite a bowler,” said Susan.

“My mother was very excited about winning that match.”

Susan remembers traveling to Sammy White’s Brighton Bowl to watch in person her father’s many appearances on the TV show.

“As I kid, you just knew he was a great bowler and you would be in the audience on television and that was really cool,” said Susan. “I remember in 1966 I was having my appendix taken out and my father was bowling on the show the next day. Jim Britt was the announcer and he said on TV, ‘a special hello to Tony’s daughter, who was in the hospital.’”

Susan Black said she’s immensely proud of her father’s many accomplishments and the Leo family’s incredible legacy. Tony was a 1947 graduate of Lynn Classical, served in the United States Army, and worked at General Electric for 34 years before his retirement.

“He was the nicest guy in the world,” said Susan. “He was always a gentleman, just an unbelievable guy. I remember one time we were watching my father bowl and his opponent missed a shot and my sister said, ‘yay,’ – my father came right over to her and said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again – you can root for me, but don’t ever root against anybody.’’’

Michael Leo Remembers his Father

As one would expect, Michael Leo ran a great house at Leo’s Super Bowl in Amesbury, an establishment that was previously owned by the Baldinelli family.

Michael Leo said he first began working at Post Office Lanes as a kid. “I used to help out when I was at the Sacred Heart Grammar School and then all through my years at St. Mary’s High School,” recalled Michael. “The family bought Metro Bowl while I was in high school. My uncle, John, ran the place, but my father was one of the owners. My father and my uncle, Bobby, also worked at GE. My uncle, Bobby, continues to run Metro with his children, son, Bobby Jr. and daughter, Lisa (Leo) Ferrari.”

Michael Leo, 58, was a very good bowler himself. “I wasn’t as good as my father, though,” he said. “I never made it on to television. I bowled in some TV rolloffs but then the Don Gillis show went off the air and that was it. I bowled with a bunch of great guys like Tom Cennami and Jimmy Barber, who was a good friend of my father – all good bowlers from Lynn. I used to bowl in the Red Hoffman Charity Rolloff.”

Michael said his father was part of the first wave of Lynn bowling stars such as George Raymond, Tom  Cennami, Frank Obey, and Jimmy Barber. They opened the door and other TV-caliber bowlers emerged, an illustrious list that includes Mike Morgan, Tom Morgan, Joe Tavernese, Al Lacey, Mike Shadoff, Paul Doherty, and so many others. Even younger stars like Dave Barber, Shawn Baker, and Jonathan Boudreau can tip their hat to gentlemanly proprietors like Tony Leo and Jimmy Barber and Sean Crowley for making Lynn the bowling capital of Massachusetts for so many years.

Michael Leo recalled how his father’s style differed from today’s cast of fireballers.

“They’re throwing the ball faster today – my father had a really nice delivery but he wasn’t throwing hard fastballs,” said Michael. “But he was accurate. I remember going to Sammy White’s Brighton Bowl many times and watching him on television and rooting for him. The entourage from Lynn would be there. It was really cool. I remember all of that.”

Michael Leo added respectfully, “The best thing my father ever gave to me when it came to bowling was just being calm, cool, and collective. My father was always that way no matter what happened when he was bowling.”

Like his father, Michael Leo brought that class and decorum to the lanes. “I remember bowling in a youth tournament at Post Office and I got the award for Best Sportsmanship. I wondered why they picked me for that award and the reason was another coach from another team said, ‘you were running down back fixing the machines and I couldn’t believe how you would come and bowl and be so composed no matter what.’ I think back on that and I got that from bowling with my father. He was a classy guy.”

Tavernese has a Strong Connection to the Leo Family

Joe Tavernese is an inductee in the ICBA Hall of Fame. He has known Tony Leo for many years, having worked at Post Office Lanes and Metro Bowl, where he is still employed.

“It’s sad that Tony’s gone,” said Tavernese. “He lived a great life. He was an awesome person, a gentleman, all of that. He was more than just my boss, he was family and he made us feel like family.”

Tavernese competed against Tony Leo on occasion, but Tavernese was more a part of the next generation of Lynn bowling greats.

“I bowled in some of the TV rolloffs with Tony,” recalled Tavernese. “He was a great bowler and competed against other guys like Fran Onorato, Joe Donovan, Joe Comeau, and Charlie Jutras.”

Tavernese said when he appeared on television, Tony Leo and his wife, Ruth, would attend the taping sessions. “I have a lot of good memories of Tony and his family. I was so grateful for their support. They are great people.” 

Tavernese excelled while representing the Leo family’s Post Office Lanes, an MBA-sanctioned establishment, and later Metro Bowl. Joe teamed with Tom Cennami on the TV doubles show. Joe and his wife, Sharon Tavernese, competed as a team on the mixed doubles TV show, before Channel 5 took all of their bowling shows off the air.

“After Sharon and I became champions, they ended the show, so we’re the reigning champions,” said Tavernese.

And Joe Tavernese’s lifelong connection to bowling was inspired by the grace and goodness of men like Tony Leo.

“Tony was an amazing person,” said Tavernese. “He was a terrific bowler and was on Channel 5 many times. Back in the day when Tony bowled, the pins fell harder. The pins didn’t fall as easy as they do today. But we had great times at Post Office, it was a fun place to be. Tony was a true gentleman and a sportsman. He will be missed.”

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