Donna Allen is the first woman to earn the United States Bocce Ball Federation's highest honor, inclusion on the Wall of Fame. And she was probably the only federation member to be surprised by the award.
"When Steve Mariucci came over to congratulate me, I had no clue what he was talking about," Allen said. The former San Francisco 49ers football coach and bocce devotee broke the news to her at the June 2009 National Championship Tournament in Livermore.
Allen, a Martinez resident, was the first woman admitted to a men's tournament team in the 1970s. That initial participation contributed to bocce ball's transformation from an exclusively Italian men's game to a family sport in the United States.
Allen's modest recollection of her service to the sport and to her community belies the magnitude of her contribution, which began when she joined the Martinez Bocce Federation board in 1975.
"We played at Granger's Wharf where the Italian fishermen had played," Allen remembered. "I could take my kids down there; you could go with people you worked with, the neighbors on the block or with family. We just had a good time."
Former Martinez Bocce Federation member and Concord Bocce Federation treasurer Collette Tedeschi recalls Allen's efforts in the "Granger's Wharf" days: "We didn't have very many courts, and no lights. We used to turn our car lights on and bring lanterns."
Allen's husband, Ken Dothee, was a founder of the Martinez Bocce Federation, and the couple made bocce the center of their family life outside of work by participating in play locally, nationally and internationally.
"We would take a week's vacation, fly to New Jersey and go around to all the clubs promoting the U.S. Bocce Federation," Allen said. "I always thought of myself as the woman behind the president, but a lot of the things I did on my own. I just thought they needed to be done."
Bocce competitions took her to South America, Yugoslavia, Canada, Europe and beyond.
"I worked to get uniforms and bocce equipment," Allen said. "I wanted to find out how they played in different areas and try to bring all these different players together."
Noticing that bocce-playing immigrants from various regions of Italy had settled throughout the United States and had little communication with each other, Allen strove to connect the bocce community in this country by expanding the Bocce Federation newsletter into a magazine.
Allen spurred manufacturers to come up with an "official bocce ball," which helped standardize the game and facilitate national tournament play.
According to Dothee, Allen used her career skills as Contra Costa County Community Development planner, friendly personality and burgeoning Martinez Bocce Federation membership to convince the city of Martinez to install double the number of new bocce courts during the development of Waterfront Park.
"Our goal was to make bocce a household word. Nobody had heard about it, except in the Italian community," Allen said. "Today Bill Cosby plays bocce. It is not a household word nationwide yet, but it certainly is in Martinez. You can have a wonderful time with so little cost right here at home."
Sixteen hundred people turn out for bocce every week during the season in Martinez.
As Martinez Bocce Federation membership ballooned, Allen and Dothee assisted members who wanted to spawn new bocce clubs in Concord, Pleasant Hill, Danville, Crockett, Pittsburg, Antioch and elsewhere.
Tedeschi said, "Now we have to turn away teams (in Concord) because we only have eight courts."
Cosmos and Collette Tedeschi credit Allen and Dothee for helping them establish the Concord Bocce Federation, which plays at Newhall Park.
Allen served as head of the U.S. delegation at the first international women's "punto raffa volo" competition in 1993 in Montreal and was chief organizer of the 1996 national championships in Martinez that topped attendance records.
Veteran bocce player Gloria Taylor was recruited to coordinate food for the weeklong event.
"We (Martinez bocce players) became like a family. Donna is a wonderful person," she said.
"Kudos to her! She does a tremendous job every year with Ray Martellacci on the Northern California Bocce Championship Tournament," said Angelo Costanza, a Martinez Bocce Federation enthusiast.
"Bocce just makes you feel good," Allen said. "We have lost our ability to have good wholesome fun without spending a lot of money. (But) I always knew I could go down to the bocce court and watch people having fun."