As dusk spread over the horizon on another summer night in Bucks County, Pete Palestina squared his shoulders and considered the decade’s worth of tradition that stood before him on a pit of manicured clay.
His next throw of the bocce ball represented the continuation of a dynasty he’s been building since 2008, when he initiated an annual match of the Italian lawn game between Northampton Township officials and residents.
“This is somewhat business as usual; if I would’ve lost, it’d be a different feeling,” Palestina, 72, said wryly after Tuesday’s best-of-three match, when his team swept the officials in two games. “But the supervisors, even though they’re not that good, and not that experienced at bocce, are good sports about it.”
Palestina will tell anyone who asks that bocce is more than just a game accessible to those who lack “agility, strength, and patience.” Here, especially, it signifies more. Every year, members of the Board of Supervisors in this semirural township square off with the best team from the 1,000-member James Kinney Senior Center, which currently boasts a bocce league of 108 players.
For folks on either side of the aisle, it represents a day without politics. A few hours where the sole focus is a game, a pastime that unites everybody, regardless of age or skill level.
“It’s not like we’re winning a car or anything, but it brings people together,” said Bob Pavie, a member of the senior-center team. In seven years, Pavie went from knowing nothing about the game to running the center’s league of 20 teams. “And it’s nice to have the supervisors here, to see them. It lets people know they care about what’s going on in the township.”
The seniors have now been undefeated for 10 years, thanks in no small part to Palestina, who switched sides in 2008 after leaving the supervisor position he held for 24 years. In that time, interest in the sport has grown, with good-hearted, PG-rated trash talk — Barry Moore, the supervisor board’s chairman, handed Palestina a $10 bill last week, telling him to “donate it to charity” if he won. Moore promised Palestina a beer if he came out on top.
At 10-1 odds, Palestina ended up giving his team’s $100 winnings to their “favorite charity” — the senior center. But the ribbing betrays the reason why township officials juggling full-time jobs continue to indulge in the annual event.
“They enjoy the game, and we enjoy the game. It allows us to make a connection and meet them where they are,” said Kim Rose, the supervisors’ treasurer. “So when they see us again and they have an issue, they’re comfortable approaching us. And that’s what good governance is about, being approachable.”
Bocce came to Northampton Township organically, as older residents moved to the area and looked for a court. In the mid-1990s, the senior center was attached to the township public library — really just a room off to the side of the bookshelves. The game was so foreign to some of the township employees that the contractor hired to build the popularly demanded bocce court had to borrow a book from the adjacent library for instructions.
“But he built it without any drains,” Palestina said. “So it became a wading pool every time it rained.”
For him, the game was anything but foreign.
Palestina remembers a time, as a kid, when he marveled at the Italian men in his South Philly neighborhood. They were giants to him, lobbing hard plastic balls on a sandpit, cigars dangling from their mouths, glasses of wine in their free hands.
“They looked so old to me,” Palestina said. “But they were probably younger than I am now.”
In 1999, officials from nearby Bensalem Township, which has a bocce court of its own, initiated an annual inter-township match. The contest lasted five years, complete with a “Goldberg Cup,” named for Mark Goldberg, the late solicitor who brokered the deal, so to speak.
When the senior center outgrew its original home in 2005, Palestina and his colleagues on the board put out bids to contractors to have an indoor bocce court included in the plans. It proved to be too expensive, so it was remanded to the field behind the center. A generous contractor donated the pavilion that covers the courts, allowing the center’s bustling league to never miss a game because of weather.
Few can say, in good faith, that his interest was misguided.
In the summer months, the courts are nearly always full. Pavie, the league commissioner, had to cut off membership to keep an even number of teams.
The players range from 56 to 96. One woman is legally blind but still holds her own, according to Sheila Jobs, the center’s director.
“A lot of seniors come here, having just moved in with their kids or moved away from their kids,” Rose said. “They join the center, join the league, and make a friend. And at a time when everyone is so isolated, if you make a friend, you can build a life.”
There was a time when Palestina was considered one of “Bocce’s Fantastic Four” in Northampton Township, along with his colleagues on the board who dominated games with nearby Bensalem Township, and at county-wide matches at the occasional “International Day” celebration.
He noted solemnly that he’s the only surviving member of that all-star team, which also included James Kinney, the senior center’s namesake.
“I think it’ll still go on after I’m gone,” Palestina said. “It better — I’ll put it in my will if I have to.”
Rose, overhearing those comments, noted that Palestina’s father is still around at 93 years old. A family “blessed with good genes,” as she put it.
“And as long as there’s blood in my body, I’ll make sure we play,” Rose said.
Palestina just smiled, another year’s worth of bragging rights secured.