A longtime Ocean City lifeguard calls it a career

Bob Domino Speca keeps an eye on the surf in Ocean City, N.J. Monday, September 3, 2012. He is climbing down from the tower after more than 30 years as a lifeguard. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Bob Domino Speca keeps an eye on the surf in Ocean City, N.J. Monday, September 3, 2012. He is climbing down from the tower after more than 30 years as a lifeguard. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: September 05, 2012

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Labor Day at the Jersey Shore. It's when sun umbrellas are snapped shut with finality, this year's beach badges are transformed from currency into souvenirs, and people depart moist-eyed.

For lifeguard Bob "Domino" Speca, it was the shrill blast of his own whistle Monday afternoon that signaled that his beach patrol days were nearly up - forever. Speca retired from lifeguarding after more than 30 summers protecting swimmers on the beaches of this Cape May County resort.

"That might have been it. . . . That might have been my last one," said Speca, wistfully returning to the lifeguard stand after guiding swimmers back to a safe zone on the Park Place beach between Third and Fourth Streets. "I'm going to bronze this whistle. Save it, cherish it."

The cloudy sky grew cloudier as the afternoon wore on. A growing threat of rain made the sparsely populated beach less and less peopled. Saturday's hot and mostly sunny weather gave visitors at least one decent beach day, but wet weather Sunday and Monday made for a less than picture-perfect holiday weekend at the Shore.

With vacationers and second-home owners sent packing early by the showers, there were only minor traffic problems Monday on major roadways such as the Atlantic City Expressway and the Garden State Parkway.

Speca, 55, who joined the Ocean City Beach Patrol right after college in 1979, was in no rush to leave.

He said he planned to drink in every moment of what was left of the summer, rain or shine. There had been several days of well-wishes and informal going-away celebrations on the beach, including an impromptu hoagie and cake party on Saturday, he said.

"They kind of do the hoagie thing at the end of summer every year, but the cake with my picture on it was a special added touch for this year. . . . It was really nice of them to have done that," he said.

Speca's nickname comes from his being a champion domino toppler. He is credited with creating the first public domino shows and at 18 established the first official world record for the most dominos toppled in a chain reaction, 11,111.

So he knows a thing or two about timing.

"It feels like every other day out here, but it kind of feels different, too. I had planned to retire at 45, but something draws you back every year," said Speca, who said he had made more than 200 water rescues.

The Conshohocken resident said he chose this year to leave after feeling "more fatigue than excitement" about the daily rigors of lifeguarding.

An earth and space sciences teacher at Marple Newtown High School, Speca, who said he wants to spend next summer with his wife, Mary Rose, traveling through Europe instead of working the beach here, will be back in the classroom Tuesday for the start of the school year. He does not plan on retiring from that job any time soon, he said.

Speca insists that he never wanted to become part of the administration - either on the beach or at school - choosing to continue working directly with the folks in the water or the students in the classroom. The teaching, lifeguarding, and domino toppling helped him cobble together a decent living, he said. (Lifeguarding in Ocean City paid $8,000 for the summer.)

Colleagues and friends on the beach said what he gave back was priceless.

"I'm going to miss him. He is an icon on the Ocean City beach," said Chris Denn, 41, of Ocean City, who has been on the beach patrol for 26 years. "I was upset at muster this morning, because I knew that it was his last one."

Greg Bradley, 28, of Somers Point, who has been on the beach patrol for 10 years, called Speca's departure the end of an era. Speca, he said, joined back in the days before walkie-talkies, wave runners, and ATVs became important parts of lifesaving.

"I've learned so much from him about the nuances of guarding . . . about being genuinely happy with who you are in this world and what you spend your time doing in it. He's one of those people that I will miss seeing every day," Bradley said.

Jim Serratore, 56, of East Norriton, Montgomery County, who owns a house in Ocean City and goes to Speca's beach nearly every day in the summer, was pragmatic about the end of the career of a lifeguard he has known for more than 30 years.

"Now he can have some time to sit on the beach and actually enjoy it . . . to relax. So it's not such a bad end of the summer for him," Serratore said.

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.

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