Patty Costello: Battling the pins, the ghost of her father and, finally, cancer

By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published in Bowlers Journal International

It is 1978. Patty Costello, having won a record seven Professional Women’s Bowling Association titles in a single season just two years earlier, has bowled just one tournament since then–the 1977 PWBA Miami Classic. She won, of course.

She is thought of now by many as one of the sport’s immortals, a ferocious competitor who would inspire other women bowlers to pursue a dream that she made possible.

Tonight, though, beyond the glare of TV cameras, beyond the applause of women who discovered a belief in themselves each time they watched her bowl on TV, Patty Costello faces the most formidable opponent in her life: the past.

It is a past where she looks over her shoulder at her parents before doing commentary for a local bowling show to joke that “they must know somebody to have seats that good.” Seconds later, just after her father responds with a chuckle, Costello looks over her shoulder again to find him dead of a heart attack.

“Right there at the TV studio lanes,” she told writer Lydia Rypcinski in a 2002 Bowling Digest article. “Gone.”

It is a past where she bowls that single tournament of 1977 in Miami only at her mother’s prompting and cries her way through the event.

“I used to go to the hospital emergency rooms and just stay in them all night,” she revealed when asked about the crippling depression she suffered in the wake of her father’s death. “I was very close to my father.”

Larry Lichstein, former Player Services Director for the Professional Bowling Association, recalls a relationship every bit as close as Costello described.

“They were inseparable,” says Lichstein, whose services Costello sought when she braved a blizzard with her father from Scranton to Lichstein’s Connecticut home to get her equipment drilled on his Player Services bus. “It was so cold and miserable I had to keep the propane on a couple hours just to get the bus warm. I always expected to see her father’s head over my shoulder as I drilled her equipment.”

Of the thousand memories storming Costello’s mind all those nights she sat in hospitals, lost in memories of her father, surely the day he helped her look through the Connecticut snow to find Lichstein’s bus was among them. But now that he was not there to look through the haze of grief and find the rest of her life, friends began to worry.

“We feared she would have a nervous breakdown,” Pearl Keller, founder of the Women’s All-Star Association ad a dear friend of Costello’s, recalled years later.

In Patty Costello, though, grief encountered the spirit of a woman who did not like to lose.

“She had a little more killer in her,” Lichstein says as he weighs Costello’s record against that of her legendary coach and mentor, Dotty Fothergill. “That’s why she won more titles than Dotty.”

Having recently completed one of the most sensational seasons in the history of women’s pro bowling, Costello found herself with even more to prove: That she still was a winner despite suffering the most brutal loss of her life. By 1985, a win at the Tournament of Champions crowned a series of victories that brought her Player of the Year honors, which, as those close to her understood, represented a monument of her triumph over a past that had refused to let her live.

But there is a piece of Costello’s past that lives beyond her now, and it can be found at Boardwalk Entertainment Center in Orlando, Fla. There, you will find another Hall of Fame bowler by the name of Pat Costello. No, not the lefty from Scranton. This Pat Costello, who herself won 13 PWBA titles and also shares middle names with Patty (“Ann”), is a right-hander from California.

“Thank God they’re not from the same state,” a PWBA executive told Sports Illustrated in 1980, “or we’d all slit our throats.”

That might sound melodramatic to the uninitiated, but those directly charged with the task of distinguishing between the Great Costellos of women’s bowling over the years understand.

They remember when Pat Costello of California set a record for high women’s series in 1978 with an 863, and that writers celebrated Patty Costello of Pennsylvania for the feat.They watch Youtube footage of the 1985 Ladies pro Bowlers Tour Hammer Western Open and find a right-handed Pat Costello setting up for a shot with the words “Scranton, PA” in a graphic with her name.

They remember newspaper coverage when the two Costellos finished first and second, with a photo of the wrong Costello as the winner.

“It was really devastating,” Pat Costello, who works as Director of Marketing at that 80-lane center in Orlando and coaches the University of Central Florida bowling team, says of Patty Costello’s death from Pancreatic cancer on April 16, 2009. “We were the same age, had the same name, and then you see something like that in print and it’s like, ‘This is really weird.’”

Pat Costello, who says she has not thrown a ball since 2000, nonetheless enjoyed national exposure recently when her longtime student, Stefanie Nation, competed for the PBA Women’s Series Showdown title on ESPN as her UCF teammates rooted her on from the stands.

But that is where the paths of the the two Costellos diverge, as friends of Scranton’s Patty Costello knew that the bowling center would be the last place to find her in the waning years of her life.

Having retired from pro bowling in 1993, Costello tackled a challenge greater than any she faced on the lanes: She took a job at the very place where she spent her darkest hours, the Community Medical Center in Scranton. There, working as a transport driver, she might finally have found closure with the loss of her father by doing for others what she never had the chance to do for him–helping people who, as she put it not long before her death, “are sick or injured and don’t want to be there.”