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Nancy Fahden: Martinez Bocce Pioneer

Written by Harriet Burt, Martinez News Gazette Contributor

Nancy Fahden made her mark on Martinez history several years before she became the first woman elected to the County Board of Supervisors sparking a huge change in the composition of the Board and its goals for the county.  It was she who started the process that not only brought bocce ball back to Martinez but made our city known nationally and internationally as one of the largest and most active bocce communities in the world.

Disgusted in the late 1960s with the endless arguments about what to do to make the waterfront an attractive and vital part of the city, she formed the ad hoc group, Women for the Waterfront.  Consisting of hardworking business and community women of the early 70s, and helped by local restauranteur Paul Pagnini, Fahden’s group put on their jeans and sweatshirts and took hoes and shovels and whatever else they needed down to the century old Granger’s Wharf area to clean it up while the City Council dithered around. The group which included Nancy’s mother, Jenny Cardinelli; Dorothy Miller, Jan LaPointe, Pat Cardinelli, Nancy’s sister-in-law; Ann Crow, her sister; Marilyn Thelen, Diana Patrick who had just moved to Martinez and others, went after the weeds, trimmed back trees and shrubs and built brick pathways.  They also discovered in the undergrowth and weeds two crumbling old bocce courts that had been used for 60 or 70 years by the local Italian fishing community.  The Martinez Lions Club stepped up to help construct new courts.  By the 4th of July 1973, the courts were ready for the first of what has become many city, regional, state and national bocce tournaments over the next 45 years.

Ken Dothee so enjoyed the 1973 tournament that when Fahden talked the Chamber of Commerce into sponsoring another one in 1974, Dothee was ready with an idea.  “This a lot of fun! Let’s do it again!” he urged his teammates.  They and other like-minded participants decided to establish a summer league for the following year.  Thus, was the Martinez Bocce Federation (MBF) formed and launched in 1975 with four and then six courts and 56 teams at Granger’s Wharf.

One of the oldest ‘bowling’ games in the world, bocce is rooted in Italy.  It was also considered in the culture to be a man’s game so wherever the Italian immigrants settled in America, courts, often indoor, would be established.  Only men were allowed to play.  In fact, as late as the 1980s, Dothee and his wife, Donna Allen, spotted a building in New Jersey advertising bocce courts with a big sign “No women allowed”.

From the start the Martinez Bocce Federation would be different.  Members decided that the organization would be open to men, women and children with public outdoor courts available for their use.  Teams of from six to ten members would play according to Martinez Open rules.  And anyone, no matter what their athletic ability, could participate.  “It’s an easy game to learn but a difficult game to play well,” Dothee says.  But that doesn’t matter to people like this writer who loved the summer evening camaraderie, the great things to eat and drink, the new people to meet and become friends with and who lived for the occasional opportunity to make a heroic, even game-winning shot despite all her years as a PE failure in competitive sports.

By 1979, the Federation was attracting teams and players from all around central Contra Costa County and from as far away as Vacaville not to mention all the locals who heard about how much fun it was and decided to join in.  So Dothee went to then City Manager Paul Brotzman and pitched the idea that in return for some of the land the City was jointly managing with the East Bay Regional Park District, the Federation would pay to build eight courts east of Granger’s Wharf near to Joe DiMaggio Drive and the baseball fields. In return, Dothee promised to bring the United States Bocce Tournament to Martinez.  Brotzman agreed to the deal which would bring people to Martinez (indeed bocce ball has put Martinez on the map for many not only in the United States but in Europe and elsewhere.), be an attractive addition to Waterfront Park and basically cost the city little or nothing.  That was in 1980. By 1981, the US national bocce tournament was held in Martinez for the first time.  It came back in 1996.  By then the MBF was what it is today, the largest bocce league in the United States and possibly the world.  240 teams competed during the 2017 season alone.  At the same time the sport’s popularity led to other bocce leagues being developed in local cities even before John Madden’s endorsement of the game complete with other sports celebrities on display at his tournaments put Pleasanton on the national bocce ball map.

One last story about Nancy Fahden and bocce ball: when the league was formed, one of the first teams to sign up was Perche No?, a team made up only of women.  Nancy was the Capo. Other team members were mainly WFW members including Pat Cardinelli, Marilyn Thelen and the late Ann de Fraga, Jan LaPointe, and Ann Crow, Nancy’s sister.  Perche No?  means Why Not? in Italian.  The MBF has answered that question for once and for all.

Nancy Fahden deserves credit for other things she accomplished during her tenure as a Supervisor including pushing successfully for a new County Hospital complex and taking a very unpopular stand with landowners that allowed East Bay Regional Park to purchase the Briones park property at an affordable price.  She was put in some danger for that according to her longtime friend, former City Council member Diana Patrick.  But it didn’t stop her.  Probably nothing ever did.


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