Domino expert falls for fun

Talent: Scott Suko of Dayton designs elaborate patterns out of thousands of wood and plastic blocks - for schools, fund-raisers and commercial stunts.

April 29, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

For nearly four hours, Scott Suko crawled around on the gym floor at Gorman Crossing Elementary School, at times laying his stout frame full-out on the hardwood as he placed one domino after another in intricate lines, zigzags and circles.

Then the tap of a selected student's finger set off the chain reaction, toppling all 2,349 dominoes in just 49 seconds, to the cheers of several hundred excited grade school children who had gathered to watch.

Suko was left with only "the psychological reward of knowing it worked and it looked good."

Such is the life of a domino expert. Suko, 41, of Dayton works most days as a senior adviser engineer at Northrop Grumman, designing circuits out of thousands of tiny transistors. But a couple of times a year, he is hired to design elaborate patterns out of thousands of wood and plastic blocks - and send them toppling - for schools, fund-raisers and commercial stunts.

His talent has earned him an appearance on Argentine television and on Martha Stewart Living (before the domestic maven's legal troubles).

Setting up thousands of dominoes side by side "requires a tremendous amount of detail, a tremendous amount of concentration," Suko said. But, he added, it can be relaxing, too. "It forces all the other thoughts out of your mind."

The painstaking task is made all the more nerve-wracking by the fact that one slip can set the whole thing in motion.

To avoid accidents, Suko places wooden slats in the line of dominoes every few feet.

And, he said, "you develop reflexes" to reach in and stop the chain reaction triggered by one clumsy move.

As the time for the topple nears, Suko removes the slats in what he calls "one of the scariest parts of the topple."

"Once [the blockers] are out, accidents can carry a long way," he said.

Andrew Costenbader knows of what Suko speaks. The Gorman Crossing fifth-grader helped set up the dominoes at the North Laurel school last week.

"It's very, very, very, very, very, very annoying," the youth said, noting that he and other children helping had frequently demolished parts of the domino patterns they were trying to create.

But in the end, "it was fun" to see the whole thing fall, he said.

The topple was a hit with many children and parents enjoying math night, but it was relatively small compared with other topples Suko has built.

He worked on his first domino topple when he was in high school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He continued to work on domino projects as he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech and a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University.

In 1986, he and a colleague built the Domino's Pizza logo out of 19,000 colored blocks for a television commercial. They used about one-third of a mile of tape to anchor the closely stacked pieces so they could be righted more easily if they accidentally fell.

That same year, Suko was one of seven experts who set up 300,000 dominoes in six countries for Coca-Cola's 100th anniversary. Using satellite connections, the blocks were knocked down in a worldwide chain reaction. Suko supervised and worked on the portion in Brazil, creating pictures of clouds, rainbows, leaves and other seasonal themes.

The projects he does at schools are smaller, but Suko said the children make them fun.

At Gorman Crossing, Suko had children and parents help him set up the dominoes, which he brought from his collection of about 80,000. He used boxes of black tiles in various sizes painted with multicolored dots and some orange, white, blue and brown dominoes, as well. Some were acrylic, others extra-large wooden blocks.

The complex design included having dominoes hit a toy truck, which then rolled down a ramp to continue the chain.

Another part used a string between a domino on the floor and one on a table to keep the topple going. A pyramid of dominoes crumbled at the end of the course.

Despite the usual setup miscues, everything went smoothly, eliciting a cheer from the crowd and causing Suko to jump into the air with triumph.

He said setting up dominoes can be a great project for children because "it combines creativity with mathematics and spatial constraints."

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