WEEKLYPRESS.COM •DECEMBER 12 • 2012 5
Roller Derby Hall of Fame Inductees Remember Judy Sowinski
By David Block Special to the Press/Review
Sometimes children’s fantasies come true, even if the dreams seem unrealistic. For Gary Powers of Brooklyn, NY his boyhood dream was to be part of Roller Derby and its offshoot Roller Games.
Most fans regarded the sport as casual entertainment, but for Powers it was a life saver. Powers’ father died when he was 12 years old. The loss was devastating.
Surprisingly, he found great comfort in the Roller Derby and Roller Games on TV. Whenever he thought about killing himself, he remembered that the Warriors, a Philadelphia Roller Game team, (1967-1981) were skating against their nemesis, the New York Bombers. He couldn’t miss it. “That saved my life,” said Powers. “How could I kill myself when the New York Bombers were coming to town.”
Every week Powers wrote the Warrior team, care of the Philadelphia Arena at 4530 Market St.„ pleading with them to skate games in his hometown of Pottsville, PA.
“I wrote the Warriors religiously for over a year,” Powers remembered. Finally, in October 1971, his dream came true. The Warriors skated at Martz Hall at the D. H. H. Lenge] School in Pottsville. “In the early ’70s, it was the biggest high school gymnasium in the state,” said Powers. “It seated six thousand.” According to Powers, the Warriors sold out Martz Hall. As a result, they skated there two Saturday nights a month to sell out crowds. After games, the young Powers stood by the Warriors’ bus, and as they boarded to leave, he’d plead, “Take me with you.” He wanted to be part of their world. He loved the fast paced skating, hard hitting and the skaters’ bitter feuds, and the game’s theatrics.
That young boy had no way of knowing that in 2004, he would become Executive Director of the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame.
The Road to the Hall of Fame
In 1999, Powers read about three filmmakers who ran out of funds while making a documentary about the renowned roller derby star, Ann Calvello, DEMON OF THE DERBY. Powers offered assistance. He felt that it was the least he could do since Calvello and the other roller derby /roller game skaters saved his life. He befriended Calvello. She was like a second mother to him, and he was like a son to her. She introduced him to many of the skaters he had watched on TV while growing up. He met Jerry Seltzer, son of Leo Seltzer who developed Roller Derby in 1935. Jerry Seltzer allowed Powers to reopen the Roller Derby Hall of Fame in 2004.
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This past November, the Roller Derby Hall of Fame Ceremony took place in Philadelphia at the warehouse at 1801 W. Indiana Ave., home of Penn Jersey Roller Derby.
One of the inductees was the acclaimed sports writer/ author Frank Deford. You can hear Frank Deford’s commentary every Wednesday morning on National Public Radio. Deford earned a spot in the Roller Derby Hall of Fame because of his 1971 book, Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of Roller Derby.
“I was surprised,” said Deford, “because I thought the hall of fame was just for skaters and not scribblers like me.” Deford was happy to have been inducted in the 2012 class with Margie Laszlo. (For the most part, Laszo skated for roller derby teams. However, she skated for the Warriors from December 1973 through February 1974.) “Margie was a particular favorite of mine,” said Deford.. “I liked her because she was sweet and pretty and she was a good skater and fun to be with, and she treated me very well.”
Another inductee was Larry Lewis, who began his career back in 1964 at age 13. Traditionally, people were not permitted to try out for roller derby or roller games until their later teens, but the powers that be made an exception for him because he had his parents’ written permission and he had true talent.
“I remember how he skated incredibly well for a young boy,” said Judy Arnold, former Warrior team captain /2004 Roller Derby Hall of Fame Inductee, who doubled for Raquel Welch in the 1972 roller game movie, Kansas City Bomber.
“Judy Arnold was always my favorite skater because she was the best,” said Lewis. After the induction ceremony, Lewis had the honor of being the official who started the Judy Sowinski Memorial game. The game featured former Warrior skaters and Penn Jersey skaters competing against former members of the Warriors’ rival, the Los Angeles Thunderbirds. The game was a tribute to former Warrior, the Polish Ace Judy Sowinski (1940 – 2011) who trained and coached the Penn Jersey Roller Derby skaters. It was Sowinski’s dream to bring roller derby back to Philadelphia, and to teach today’s generation the game. She inspired Penn Jersey just as she inspired people when she competed.
A number of skaters present and past flew in from Los Angeles to skate that game. Judy Arnold remembered: “Judy (Sowinski) was on the San Francisco Bay Bombers when I went to my first Roller Derby game and I was very impressed with her skating style and aspired to skate like her some day. She was a great competitor and because of her abilities, I became a better skater. She challenged me every time we skated against each other.”
One of the Memorial game’s officials was Terri Toledo, the very first roller game female referee. (Roller Derby allowed women to officiate after Toledo became a referee.) To a degree, Toledo has Sowinski to thank for becoming a referee.
While skating against Sowinski in the early ’70s, she tried to escape from
the Polish Ace’s clutches. “I went one way, my leg went the other way,” said Toledo. “That seriously injured my knee.” Afraid to damage her knee permanently Toledo hung up her skates put on referee’s stripes.
Powers said, “Judy’s promotional interviews were classic, expertly tailored with a spontaneous performance filled with hyperbole and gusto that guaranteed fans would
the arena. And she always had the expertise to back up what she promised. She was larger-than-life, but introspective and shy off the track.”
Powers remembered when she was inducted into the Roller Derby Hall of Fame, back in 2004. That night, one of her all time Roller Derby idols, Sammy Skobel phoned to congratulate her. “Judy ran from the room with tears in her eyes since here on the phone was the skater she had idolized and emulated as a new trainee,” said Powers. “She had never spoken with him previously. Judy was reduced to tears, but that was the true Sowinski. She was the total professional, always doing whatever was asked of her for the good of the game and whatever came her way was icing on the cake.”