Ann Calvello died the other day -- 76 years old.

I did an interview with her 35 years ago -- a movie called "Derby" had come out in 1971, about a kid in Akron who wanted to be a derby star -- and he got his shot, was skating for the Bay Bombers, but she was a lot more interesting --a monster on the track and a delight off it: funny, sharp, dangerous -- kept you awake and laughing.

I had gone to the stadium with another man, but there was a new skater on the team, tall brunette, really beautiful woman, with a face that, in repose, could have been one of Fillipino Lippi's sorrowful Renaissance angels (although in some of the photos I took, she was in a fight and looked like Grendel's mom storming out of the cave). Anyway, my friend had fallen instantly head over heels for her. It wasn't hard to do. And he’d introduced himself to her by saying "I'm hopelessly in love with you," leaving me to do the story by myself.

I thinkI had the better time.

She could have blown me off -- she did that with press people a lot. But instead, she said:
"You want the interview? You want to know who we really are? You come drinking with us."

And I did, at the bar across Stanyan Street from the stadium.

I assumed -- well, I hoped -- ok, I can survive this.

Mostly they were all sort of mellowed out after an evening of smacking the crap out of other guys. And while we talked and drank, I kept thinking -- finally asked her -- where do I know you from, why do you look so familiar. And we figured it out. I had grown up seeing her, in pictures and on TV -- she'd skated for the Philly Panthers when I grew up there.

(There was a whole copyright thing about the name, "Roller Derby" at the time -- the man who'd originally set up the league owned the name, he said. So in later years, it had to be called "Roller Games" or some such bullshit. That's another story.)

Because of the movie, she talked a lot about the new kid, saying he wanted to roll BIG but he was too small. Meaning he smashed hard like a big guy did but should have been at least 6 inches bigger and 40 pounds heavier to last because it took bulk to sustain the hits. He had the will and the toughness, but didn't have the technique he needed to last long. And wasn't really interested in learning it because he was a star.

I said, "Really?" and she said, "Watch this."

Called him over and said, "This guy's a fan, saw your movie..." and without getting off the bar stool, she threw a shoulder and elbow into him and knocked him on his ass right there in the bar.

She turned to me and said "See? Look at that -- he doesn't dodge, doesn't roll with the fall. He's gonna break."

Ms Calvello was not very big herself, not in physical size, although at 5’7” you wouldn’t have called her petite -- even if you'd never seen her work.

But she was what people call “bigger than life.”

She was fearless, and she was a "big hitter," but the really big noise associated with her skating was usually the sound of the person she'd knocked over, skates up, helmet down, hitting the wood.

She wouldn’t have lasted 10 years in Roller Derby -- let alone 50 years – without a whole lot of smarts and a hard-won knowledge of the craft. She picked her angles and could knock anyone, no matter how big, on her ass without having to take the full hit herself. (She could use her helmet, too, when the occasion warranted.)

She was funny and bright, and had that relaxed way a cat has, one that knows the claws are right there if needed.

And I spent the evening with her and the team, drinking and laughing until the bar closed. And I said Good Night and staggered home


Absolutely true.

She was so alive that here I am 30+ years later, and I can put myself right back on that barstool and see her lighting up the room, the scene still shining in memory.

She was a solid gold, diamond-studded "something else”

She was the definition of what people mean when they say that someone is "something else."

Goodbye, Ann – thanks for one of the best nights of my life.


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