After lifetime in bowling, alley owner wins national award

For the past 30 years, Camelanes owner Mike Divis has poured his passion for bowling into the staple establishment for many families in Gillette. He was recently named the country's top bowling alley owner of the year. (Photo by Mike Moore, Gillette News Record)

GILLETTE — It’s not hyperbole to say that Mike Divis has spent his life at Camelanes.

In the almost 30 years that the 20-lane bowling center in Gillette has been in his family, it has continually evolved while maintaining its essence as a community bowling alley.

Divis replaced the carpet and implemented digital scoring. He replaced the ball return machines and the wood lanes. In the late weekend hours, cosmic lights now make the lanes glow in the dark.

But to the locals who measure the passage of time by their bowling league calendars, the center’s charm remains untouched. Inside, the air is still heavy with the scents of deep fryer oil, popcorn and draft beer. The unassuming exterior still hides the building just off Second Street, right where it has always been.

Recently, Divis’ lifetime spent at the bowling center in northeast Wyoming was recognized nationally by the Bowling Proprietor’s Association of America, which named Divis its 2020 BPAA Proprietor of the Year.

“To have the industry you’re a part of single you out, out of the whole United States, that’s pretty amazing,” Divis said.

The accolade is awarded each year to the owner of one bowling center in the U.S.

In past years, the award was presented in person at the International Bowl Expo, an industry convention that draws people from around the world. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Divis said he is tentatively scheduled to receive the award later at an event in Atlantic City instead.

Divis has been president of the Wyoming Bowling Proprietors Association for about 20 years. It runs a statewide scholarship program for young bowlers, who earn chances for scholarship money by bowling throughout their school years.

“We have over $350,000 allocated to kids throughout the state of Wyoming right now,” he said.

In addition to heading the state proprietors association, Divis also serves on the state and local boards of the U.S. Bowling Congress.

“I don’t do all these things with that being the end result,” he said about the national award. “I do all these things because I love the game of bowling. I’ve always believed that if you want to change something or you have something to add, get in there and do it.”

Like the young people he now helps mentor, Divis grew up bowling in Gillette.

As a kid, he looked after his two younger brothers when his parents spent weeknights bowling at Camelanes. Then in 1991, his family bought the bowling center they had spent so much time in. Eventually, Divis took it over himself.

He has since poured almost all of his time into it. For the first three years, he said he worked most days from the time it opened in the morning until closing, often past midnight.

“When we started having kids, my wife let me know that I wasn’t going to be here until 2 o’clock every morning,” he said. “That wasn’t gonna cut it.”

Divis and his wife have three daughters, all of whom grew up playing at Camelanes in lockstep with their tall, entrepreneurial and always bowling father.

Some of his fondest memories are of bowling with them when they were younger, he said. Each year, Wyoming hosts a bowling tournament where juniors and adults partner up. Divis would take turns partnering with his daughters.

He said he bowled a perfect 300 game in that tournament alongside his girls. For good measure, Divis recently bowled a perfect 300 in a tournament while partnered with his grandson.

“It’s moments like those that you hope the kids never forget as something they remember,” Divis said.

For his career, Divis said he bowls about a 230 average. One year, he competed in the PBA Masters, where he placed in the middle of the pack.

“You realize the difference between being a weekend warrior bowler compared to these guys where that’s how they make their living,” he said. “They are that much better.”

For years, Divis family vacations doubled as bowling voyages. He took his family on numerous trips to different bowling centers in other states, partially as an excursion, but also for inspiration.

He would glean ideas and experiment with them back at home in Gillette. Sometimes the ideas failed, but enough of them worked to help keep Camelanes ahead of the curve compared to other towns the size of Gillette and centers the size of Camelanes.

“I’ve had way more failures than I’ve had successes,” Divis said. “I don’t quit trying. Some of the ideas I thought were dumb, some of them were the best at the time.”

Although his family saw firsthand how dedicated Divis has been to the game, national recognition never crossed their minds, he said.

“I don’t think it was anything they expected either,” Divis said. “To be recognized nationally for it, I think they are as taken back by it as I am.”

Besides the support of his family, the sense of community fostered at Camelanes is another aspect of the center that Divis credits for its success.

“This place is a lot like ‘Cheers,’” Divis said, referring to the popular 1980s sitcom with the theme that “everyone knows your name.”

“When you see people on a regular basis once a week, twice a week, three times a week, you’re friends,” he said. “Whether you’re close friends, you get to know these people and talk to them. You build a bond with them.”

Throughout the years, he has seen the state of Gillette’s economy reflected at Camelanes. Bowlers lose their jobs and business slows down, or the economy booms and his lanes are full.

With the latest effects of the pandemic still shaking out, he is uncertain how it will impact his business this time.

“Let’s face it, Gillette is mostly an oil field, coal mine, gas-related (community),” he said. “So, whether or not they actually work for those companies or they work for companies that work for those companies, it’s all a trickle down effect.”

As jobs have come and gone over the years in Campbell County, so have the bowlers attached to those occupations. Yet, friends and suds and the moment of suspense that comes between the instant a ball is released and a pin is struck is still the same.

“People still want to be around other people,” he said. “So I think there’s always going to be a place for us.”

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