In short, the story of bowling in Lafayette just can’t be told without Jackie LeBlanc as its central figure.
LeBlanc, 92, died Sunday at her home with a legacy of treating bowlers kindly that goes back to the 1950s.
Lafayette Lanes assistant manager Ric Boudreaux calls LeBlanc, "The First Lady of Bowling in Lafayette," and for good reason.
Thousands of people have bowled at Lafayette Lanes on Johnston Street in Lafayette over the past 60 years.
Jackie and her husband Jaco were involved in bowling in Lafayette even before that.
In 1956, the couple opened up Jaco’s Lanes — located on North Pierce Street — and offered bowling there until Lafayette Lanes opened. The LeBlancs sold the equipment from those historic lanes to the Rice Bowl in Crowley and Jackie went to Lafayette Lanes to become the assistant manager for most of the next 35 years.
Ronnie Landry certainly remembers that transition. As the story goes, Landry and his siblings were part of the group that rolled the final balls down the lane at Jaco’s and then the first to roll a ball at Lafayette Lanes in the same day.
“She was an icon,” Landry said. “I never heard her raise her voice. She was always trying to promote bowling. If you were struggling, she’d come out to help you and try to get you rolling again.
“She was always there for you. She was a bowler’s bowler.”
Indeed, Jackie LeBlanc was an institution in Lafayette.
For many years, she wrote a bowling column in the Daily Advertiser to promote the center’s bowling stars. During her years at Lafayette Lanes, LeBlanc organized leagues, created tournaments and ran payroll.
But according to longtime Lafayette Lanes manager Randy LeBlanc (no relation), Jackie was a non-stop promoter of the sport.
“If you were walking in the mall, Jackie might walk up to you and ask if you wanted to bowl in a league or have you ever bowled in a league,” said Randy LeBlanc, who moved to Lafayette Lanes in 1979 and became manager in 1981. “Jackie was on duty 24 hours a day.
“Jackie was influential in getting more people bowling in this town than any woman I know.”
Jackie LeBlanc’s bowling fame stretched beyond Lafayette’s borders. In the 1970s, she created the grandmother’s bowling tournament concept. It was the first of its kind in the nation. Grandmothers from across the country flocked to Lafayette Lanes to participate.
“There were huge contingents from Texas, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee,” Randy LeBlanc said. “It was a great event.
“She tried to make sure everybody won something. She would go around town to merchants to get stuff. She’d give away necklaces, lamps, just all kinds of stuff. It was unbelievable. The tournament was a great success.”
Boudreaux said he first experienced how popular the grandmother’s tournaments were when he and his buddies showed up during the event for a little jackpot bowling fun in the early 1980s.
“They said, ‘You can’t bowl here, the lanes are full,’” Boudreaux said. “It was like that for weeks. They took up the whole place.”
It was hard to say no to Jackie LeBlanc, because it’s something she never did when others asked for help. Her warm approach to dealing with bowlers made her special to all who crossed her path.
“It wasn’t only because of how nice she was,” Randy LeBlanc said. “She understood people. She really understood people. She understood people’s needs. Jackie had the ability to take a problem and find a way to tell that person yes. She never told anybody no. Sometimes she had to make them dance a little bit, but she ended up being able to say yes. She could get them where she wanted them. She was just wonderful.
“She was very valuable to me. She was just a terrific, terrific person.”
Renella Cormier, youth director at Acadiana Lanes, agreed.
“She was a very classy lady with genuine respect for all people,” Cormier said.
Jackie LeBlanc was honored by every local and state bowling Hall of Fame around. Another one of her life’s passions was honoring World War II survivors. Her husband, Jaco, was a survivor of the USS Bismark. The couple hosted several of the reunions of that ship’s survivors in Lafayette.
“She was just a wonderful person and a wonderful employee,” Randy LeBlanc said.
“She got along with everybody,” Boudreaux said. “That doesn’t happen in bowling or in other sports, but it’s great when it does.”