After 33 years, lifeguard 'Domino' leaving his stand

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OCEAN CITY — With his old friend and former lifeguard buddy Tom Bryan, and his wife, Mary Rose, “Moser,” by his side, Robert “Domino” Speca left the Park Place beach he called home for the past 33 years for the last time as a member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol Sunday, Sept. 9.

As he headed up the steps to the boardwalk, he handed his wife his whistle. The newly retired lifeguard said he had a “fantastic day.”

“The weather was so nice, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to go out,” he said. “I have no regrets. You know when it’s time. I made a lot of friends, met a lot of really nice people and with big surf, I had rescues right up to the end.”

The past few weeks have been bittersweet, he said. Longtime regulars on the Park Place beach showered him with attention; they brought balloons, baked cakes and hosted picnics.

“A lady thanked me for rescuing her sister 30 years ago,” he said. “So many of these families, I’ve watched the kids grow up, pulled them out of the water many times. They’re all so appreciative. It’s been a pretty good job to have all these years. I’m going to miss it.”

The Park Place legend is famous for more than saving lives. In the ’70s, Speca was a competitive swimmer, a star at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, he trained for and competed in 14 Ironman triathlons. He traveled to Hawaii and other locales and appeared on the Wide World of Sports.

He’s competed in over 150 marathons, and completed the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run. He’s coached swimmers who have won gold medals.

Speca, who lives in Conshohocken, Pa., hopes to travel with his wife through Europe next summer, but Ocean City will always be part of the plan.

“Ocean City is a special place, my wife came here as a kid and my parents met here,” he said. “We’re not leaving Ocean City.”

A physics teacher in the Marple Newton School District in Pennsylvania, Speca embodies patience and discipline – he set the original Guinness Book of World Records record for domino toppling in 1974. In the subsequent years, others have topped him, and he’s come back and topped them.

“Domino” is a nickname given to him by his Penn fraternity brothers at Delta Kappa Epsilon. For Speca, it’s all about the hypnotic thrill of watching, and hearing, the dominoes fall and the complicated engineering and physics necessary to make it happen.

He said it goes beyond figure eights, ramps, and triple and super peel offs. When you’re doing live television, filming commercials and entertaining crowds, you need mechanics: high dives, mousetraps, Tarzan swings, inverted cascades, elevators and even “Six Days Till Sunday” and “Up the Mountain,” because dominoes really can fall up, he explained.

Speca launched the domino-toppling craze that began three decades ago, appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “That’s Incredible,” “On the Road with Charles Kuralt,” “The Arsenio Hall Show,” “Super Dave Osborne,” “Reading Rainbow,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” He’s written a book, “Championship Domino Toppling,” and set up dominoes on the Great Wall of China and knocked them down with Ted Pryor and Jackie Gleason.

Dominoes came into his life as a sophomore at Marple Newton High School when his teacher, Mr. Dobransky, asserted that the math induction theory – a deductive method of proof holding that if the first number in a proposition proves out, every other number in a long line will prove out – was analogous to having an infinite number of dominoes fall.

“He said proving it was not unlike pushing over the first domino,” he said. “If you had an infinite row of dominoes and they started toppling, they would never reach the end, even though they fall 100 times faster than they are set up.

“I wanted to prove the theory,” he said.

Speca was intrigued enough to go out that afternoon and buy four boxes of dominoes. He hurried home and cleared off a table in the den, then lined up 112 dominoes.

“Click, click, click …” was all it took. “What if I set them up in an even longer line?” he asked.

His ambitions grew as his domino collection grew and pretty soon he was out of the den and in the basement, a large territory to try all kinds of new things, he explained. In three years he collected 5,000 dominoes.

“I discovered that one domino could knock over two or three others, in different directions,” he said. “Dominoes can fall uphill and can split off in two lines to ensure the continuation of the chain.”

He introduced different sizes of dominoes to achieve greater effects, once bicycling seven miles to Kiddie City after wiping out the local stores.

The dominoes were falling at a rate of 35 per second, and soon the Specas, Angel and Bob, were entertaining hundreds of people who came to see the latest toppling. A newspaper story led to an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”

From there, he established the world record. He said 11 was his lucky number and he likes things in multiples of 11. With nothing to shoot for, as he was entering uncharted territory, he chose 11,111. It took 11 hours to set up over 400 boxes of dominoes, which included, among other things, the American flag, ram’s horns, figures eights, DNA chains, triple intersections and sweeping curves.

Fate and the science of momentum were with him and he set the record, but the publicity alerted some like-minded folks in Seattle, who topped him with 13,832.

Speca built a 15,000 domino chain for “David Frost Presents” and then topped himself with 22,222 dominoes, which took him 19 hours to set up. That put him in the Guinness book for 1977.

“The game of one-upmanship went international,” he said.

A Brit topped him with 33,000; he came back with 55,555 at The Palestra on the Penn campus and helped underwrite his college education with television and shopping center appearances.

Not only was it fun, it was lucrative, he said, and he’s earned money and raised thousands of dollars for charity.

Speca set up 100,000 dominoes at the Manhattan Center, which took him 11 days. He stood back and let them go merrily on their way until a card fell from the pocket of an ABC cameraman, striking a domino and starting an independent chain.

“I froze in disbelief,” he said, as the final act happened without him.

Fortunately, he lost only 2,500 dominoes and still set a record with 97,500.

In Denver, in 1981 he set up 111,111, his largest topple to date.

Speca said domino toppling requires immense amounts of science, discipline and patience. He majored in astronomy, but he credits his parents and teachers for instilling discipline.

Meanwhile, Speca sought a teaching job and landed at Academy Park High School in Sharon Hill, Pa. A few years later his old science teacher retired, creating an opening at Marple Newtown.

Teaching, he said, blended with lifeguarding, seamlessly.

No matter where life has taken him, Speca has returned, summer after summer to Ocean City. He was a rookie guard in 1979, and an unlikely one at that – he burns easily, doesn’t like the heat, prefers shade to sunshine and doesn’t like sand, he said. But he needed to train to stay competitive, and since he broke records in the pool, his fraternity brothers encouraged him to give lifeguarding a shot.

“I’m not a ‘gotta ride a wave’ kind of guy, I don’t like salt water. I like chlorinated water and pool decks. I want linen on the beach,” Speca said.

“I wasn’t born with sand in my shoes, but I thought guarding might be fun,” he said.

It was the people, he said, who lured him back for 33 seasons.

“I loved the camaraderie, the people on the beach, my fellow guards.

“Once a guard, always a guard,” he said. “It’s like a fraternity.”

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