Kellogg Bowl mechanic Bob Mullan rolls into retirement
The time has finally come for Milwaukie's Bob Mullan to put down his mechanic's tools, kick up his feet, and learn to relax.
Well, at least until the phone rings.
Mullan, 72, announced his retirement at the end of May after more than 40 years as the head mechanic and jack-of-all-trades at both Kellogg Bowl in downtown Milwaukie and nearby Milwaukie Bowl.
He doesn't have any plans for what he wants to do in retirement, but has assured co-owners Champ Husted and Bill Oetken that if they run into any problems and need his help, he's available.
"We each got a guy who is a neophyte compared to Bob, which is going to be a problem for us," Husted said. "We're going to be calling him and he knows it. He has volunteered to answer the phone, so … he won't let whoever we have working screw things up. He's a special breed, I'll tell you."
Mullan was 12 when he was introduced to bowling and quickly fell in love with the sport.
"I couldn't get enough of it," said Mullan, a 1962 graduate of Milwaukie High School. "A good friend of mine, Bob Phillips, was hired to work at the bowling center, and I was envious and jealous at the same time. I didn't get my chance to work at a bowling center until I graduated high school."
As Kellogg Bowl was preparing to open in the spring of 1962, Mullan applied and was hired as a porter -- a person who picks up after the bowlers, clearing and cleaning tables, and putting bowling balls away.
"Kellogg Bowl was looking for people," he said. "I knew how to bowl and I knew the rules of bowling, so that qualified me to at least break in as a porter.
"I thought it was great, because I got an employee discount on bowling and I was working inside where it was air-conditioned during the summer, which was a lot better than working at a service station or something like that."
Mullan worked Kellogg's grand opening event which featured free bowling and shoe rental, plus free soda-pop, coffee and ice cream, which kept Mullan hopping.
"The place was full from noon until just before midnight and I pulled an entire shift," he said. "When I was done, my butt was dragging and made two furrows in the rug, I was that beat up.
"They did that for two weekends in a row, and then they kept me on because I put up with it."
Mullan is the son of a mechanic, Leonard Mullan, the one-time mayor of Milwaukie who operated Mullan's Milwaukie Garage for 20 years out of the former Portland Railway, Light & Power Company building located between Jackson and Harrison Streets just west of City Hall.
He left Kellogg Bowl for a time, and then returned in 1968 as the head mechanic in charge of making sure the automatic pinsetter machines produced by American Machine and Foundry (AMF) operated at peak performance.
"The equipment was all new, so I didn't have many concerns," Mullan said. "The challenge was to try to keep the performance up. As a mechanic, you don't want breakdowns and you don't want repeat problems.
"If you have problem, OK, solve it and get the machine back up and running to where it's reliable."
There was a time when all automatic pin-setting machines installed by AMF were leased, but Kellogg's owners at the time initially balked at such an arrangement, according to Mullan.
"What happened was, AMF operated on the assumption that there would be a lease agreement here when they shipped the equipment, but the powers that be at the bowling center said, 'No, we either own the machines or we don't want them,'" Mullan said. "So, unbeknownst to the employees, there was a lawsuit -- AMF vs. Kellogg Bowl.
"AMF didn't want to sell the machines, but they went ahead and sent them out and installed them with the idea that if they won the lawsuit, then the business would just go on, but if they lost the lawsuit, they'd take the machines out or do whatever they wanted."
At some point in the power struggle, each of Kellogg's machines were labeled with nameplates that read: Sales Contract No. 1.
"So, the first automatic pinsetters ever sold by American Machine and Foundry were right here," Mullan said. "Kellogg Bowl eventually lost the lawsuit and AMF took over the center and started selling the equipment."
In 1976, Kellogg converted to machines built by the Brunswick Corporation, and Mullan spent a month at Brunswick's national training center in Muskegon, Michigan.
"It was the same year the Trailblazers won the NBA championship," he said. "I was at the airport in Chicago waiting for a connecting flight when they won and I was the only one that was excited."
Mullan said there were a few times when he ran into problems and would make a phone call to Muskegon in search of answers, but that was rare.
"Most of the time, there was a pretty good network of support around here that you didn't have to bother the people in Muskegon," he said. "Plus a lot of time, they were just going to quote you right out of the book … only it didn't seem to work sometimes."
Of the 24 machines at Kellogg Bowl, eight machines came from a bowling center in Idaho, and the other 16 were shipped from a bowling center in Japan.
"These machines are right out of the 40s' technology -- one motor with one, big gear box and a bunch of jack shafts and belts," Mullan said. "As long as you can get belts for them, keep them lubricated, and replace broken nuts and bolts, they're as reliable as a steam engine and you can keep them running forever.
"The Brunswick machine is a tank. It can run, and not run very well, but it will keep running. It never disintegrates or falls apart to the point where you can't repair it."
When Mullan first started in the industry, most bowling centers had a mechanic to oversee maintenance of the pinsetters, plus a lane man whose job was the cleaning, oiling and maintenance of the lanes. Other jobs, including maintenance of air conditioning units, were typically outsourced.
As the industry became more and more automated with the development on automatic lane equipment that could clean and oil at the same time, and the duties that had been associated with the position of lane man were, in many cases, absorbed by the mechanic.
Mullan took his responsibilities a step further, paying his own way to get training in the repair and maintenance of air-conditioning units.
"You could search the world over and never find a more dedicated, loyal employee than Bob Mullan," Husted said. "He always looked out for the business, and was always careful about spending money. He just knows how everything runs, whether is the coffee machine or the air conditioner. It didn't make any difference
"If he has one drawback, if you ask him what time it is, he'll tell you how to build a clock before you find out what time is. He's just so gosh-darn thorough. And he knows what he's talking about."
At one point in his career, Mullan took seminars to learn how to teach bowling and spent at least 10 years as a bowling instructor and coach. And if one of his young bowlers needed holes measured and drilled in a ball to fit their hands, he could do that, too.
"You try to help out anyway you can," he said. "It makes you more valuable if you can do a little bit of everything for a small, family-owned center like this one.
"If I had worked at a big, Brunswick-operated center, they wouldn't let me do all those things. I'd either do this or do that, but you don't do it all."
As a bowler, Mullan said he averaged about 185 in his prime.
"I never really was a good bowler, but I liked it because it was a team sport, and if you joined in a league, it was a team effort," he said. "You had four other people with you bowling, so if you missed a spare or threw a split, there were four other people there to help pick you up. And it was fun."
He said the same holds true for his time as a mechanic. He enjoyed that, too.
"I did," he said. "It was something that I could do and I felt comfortable with. I like the people, both the ones I worked for and the ones I interacted with on a daily basis. I just met some really nice people and I'm going to miss that, but I'll stay in contact with a lot of them one way or another."
Mullan hasn't bowled for eight or nine years, but he said it could be time to rekindle an old flame.
"I might do it now that I'm retired," he said. "I might bowl with the seniors and see if I can still roll the ball down the lane."