2018-04-13 / Front Page

It’s all in the cards

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Top, Elaine Cross, 88, runner-up on in the South Portland Housing Authority inaugural cribbage tournament, held April 5 at the Betsy Ross House, reacts to a particularly good hand. Bottom, Bob Sirois, left, and John Clancy, both residents of the Betsy Ross House, contemplate hands in their own side game as they wait out the eventual winner in the tournament. (Duke Harrington photo) Top, Elaine Cross, 88, runner-up on in the South Portland Housing Authority inaugural cribbage tournament, held April 5 at the Betsy Ross House, reacts to a particularly good hand. Bottom, Bob Sirois, left, and John Clancy, both residents of the Betsy Ross House, contemplate hands in their own side game as they wait out the eventual winner in the tournament. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – As she watched her opponent peg up the points, Elaine Cross scrunched her face into a twisty-tie of mock horror and surprise.

“Oh,” she cried. “How could you do an old lady like that?”

The 88-year-old then quickly broke out into a laugh. She was, she said, “not afraid to play the age card.”

But it was all for naught. Although it came down to a third tie-breaking match – “the rubber,” in the parlance of the game – it was Cross’ opponent, Doris Barker, 82, who was named the first seniors cribbage champion of South Portland.

The inaugural tournament was the brainchild of Phillip Smith, resident services coordinator for South Portland Housing Authority. A licensed clinical social worker, Smith had seen news recently of a similar tournament in Lewiston and figured it would be worth replicating in South Portland.

“Doctors recommend that seniors get up and get out and not isolate themselves. So, this was just part of trying to help with that,” Smith said. “What was interesting was that it got quite competitive. It wasn’t cutthroat, but there were some really amazing hands like I’ve never seen before, even though some players were pretty new at it.

“But generally, the theme was, let’s go and have a good time, let’s talk, eat, play, socialize and try to grow this into something bigger,” Smith said.


Top, with contestants eliminated in previous weeks of play on hand to watch Elaine Cross, 88, left, and Doris Barker, 82, right, squared off for the final championship game in the South Portland Housing Authority inaugural cribbage tournament, held April 5 at the Betsy Ross House. (Duke Harrington photo) Top, with contestants eliminated in previous weeks of play on hand to watch Elaine Cross, 88, left, and Doris Barker, 82, right, squared off for the final championship game in the South Portland Housing Authority inaugural cribbage tournament, held April 5 at the Betsy Ross House. (Duke Harrington photo) Making it happen was a larger logistical task than it had been in Lewiston, however. After all, South Portland Housing Authority has eight large senior complexes that house more than 450 individuals.

Those homes include the Betsy Ross House at 99 Preble St. Ext., Hazard Tower and Mill Cove Tower at the corner of Broadway and Cottage Road, St. Cyr Court on lower Broadway, Landry Village and Adam Court, both off of Westbrook Street, plus Ridgeland Estates on Ridgeland Avenue, and, adjacent to that, the newest site, Ridgeland Gardens. There also are more than 100 seniors scattered in individual housing authority units across the city.


Silas Sima, a resident of Ridgeland Estates, pegs off his hand during the final round of the South Portland Housing Authority inaugural cribbage tournament. (Duke Harrington photo) Silas Sima, a resident of Ridgeland Estates, pegs off his hand during the final round of the South Portland Housing Authority inaugural cribbage tournament. (Duke Harrington photo) “Mostly, I refer people to services or I bring classes into the buildings,” Smith said, explaining how the tournament came to be. “For example, we do cooking classes, shopping classes on how to save money, health classes like maintaining balance and living with chronic disease.

“Everybody who lives in these buildings is independent. So, they all have their own schedules and their own things they do in the community, but we try to add services and activities to it, like taking groups of people around to the theater, or shopping, or whatever they want to do,” Smith said. “Maine is the oldest state in the country and we are doing everything we can to help people age in place, rather than having to move to more expensive, more intensive housing, like nursing care or assisted living. And so, the more engaged and involved seniors are in their lives, the happier they seem to be, and also more physically and mentally fit they are.

“That’s why we try to get people out and about as much as possible,” Smith said. “But one of our residents said wouldn’t it be nice if we could do more activities in house. So, we came up with this.”

In all, 28 seniors from all eight sites participated in the inaugural tournament, a number Smith hopes to grow with the next iteration in a couple months.

The event champion, Barker, has lived at Ridgeland Estates for three years. A native of South Portland, she began playing cribbage as a child, she said, learning the game as a pre-supper activity.

Widowed twice, with four children, several grandchildren from her second marriage, and seven grandchildren of her own, Barker’s life has always been centered on the young.

“I was a homemaker. And I took care of the neighborhood children, so everybody else could work. That was really my only hobby, keeping everybody on track,” she said.

Although her Cumberland Road home was known as the neighborhood hangout, Barker would formally take in two or three children per school year to care for in addition to her own.

“I got $10 a week per child, from early morning until the parents came back for them,” she said. “I fed them and napped them and was there when they came home from school. Can you imagine what I would get nowadays?”

The large field behind her old home is gone now, filled in by development, but it was idyllic back in the 1960s, with every home brimming with children and boasting at least one “beautiful dog,” Barker said.

“It was wonderful. It really was,” she recalled. “Nobody had any cars. Or at least there was one car to a family, if that. If you felt like letting your children out to play, they could literally lay down in the street and no car would come by until 5 o’clock. It was just a wonderful time to be alive and to have children.”

Barker’s secret weapon during the tournament was her own personal cribbage board, which she made herself in 2007. Did it give her an edge for the hands in which it was used?

“I would hope,” she said, with a laugh.

Still, Barker declared herself shocked to have won.

“I was just coming to get out of my box and meet some people. I had no idea I’d get this far,” she said. “But I love it. It’s just a wonderful way to spend some time. And I have pretty good luck. It’s all according to the cards you get, though. Cribbage is that way.”

As the tournament winner, Barker’s name will go on a brass nameplate, which will be affixed to a plaque Smith made in his own woodworking shop. That plaque will hang in the lobby of Ridgeland Estates until someone manages to steal it away in a future tournament. Smith said he hopes to stage a new round every couple months, with the next one hosted at Ridgeland Estates, as home of the defending champion.

“I think continuing this is very important,” Barker said, “because we’re all getting to an age now where we’re slowing down and we don’t get out as much as we used to. We don’t have the steam. So, to have somebody pick you up on the bus, take you to something fun like this, feed you, and take you back home, that’s wonderful.”

Meals were a big part of the housing authority cribbage tournament, and one of the more discerning diners has been Cross, who spent her career as a cook – a profession she chose because, “A good cook never goes hungry, and a good cook can always find a job.”

Case in point, Cross spent her life dealing meals in everything from small diners to big supper clubs. Her favorite dish to make was always chili, she said, and as it so happened, the championship dinner was chili, homemade by Smith.

“His was pretty good,” Cross said, throwing a wink and a grin Smith’s way. “I can’t say too much more though. He’s my ride home.”

Originally from Iowa, Cross followed her daughter to Maine and worked locally for nine years, cooking at the Thomas Smith House for seniors in Westbrook. She then moved back to Iowa when she retired and her daughter moved overseas. But then a stroke a dozen years ago brought Cross back to the side of her daughter, who by then had returned to South Portland. Cross has lived at Adam Court for 11 years.

Although she has not played cribbage for as long as Barker, Cross has logged more than half a century at the game, having learned from a friend while in her 30s. She has since taught more than 40 people how to play cribbage solitaire. So, she’s no slouch either, even if she proclaimed herself equally surprised to have made the final.

“I was definitely surprised,” she said. “I figured if I made it past the first week I’d be happy. My only strategy is to just hope for good cards. It’s 60 percent in the cards you get and 40 percent playing them right.”

Now, Cross is looking forward to a rematch, while practicing her cribbage solitaire.

“It’s a great game,” she said. “It keeps your mind active and keeps you thinking.”

Smith hopes to double the number of South Portland Housing Authority participants when the second cribbage tournament rolls around in a couple months. In the interest of expanding the social network for housing authority seniors, Smith said future rounds will also be opened to the public. Any school, area agency or other group interested in sending representatives for a good meal, fun game and great conversation, is welcome to attend, he said.

For more information, call Smith at 743- 4140.

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