The Domino Effect


Dr. Robert B. Pankey

When I was in college, during the summer I worked at camp for boys in Branson, Missouri.  I was a utility guy, who watched the swimming pool as a lifeguard and played games with the summer camp kids when they weren’t in the pool.  One of the games that the kids loved to play on dry land was dominos.  One day we took all the hundreds of dominos and stood them on end, next to each other,  and when they were all lined up in intricate designs, I showed the kids how one little action could cause a “domino effect.”

Wikipedia defines the Domino Effect as “the reaction or cumulative effect produced when one event sets off a chain of similar events.” The domino effect is best known as a mechanical effect of energy or force.  Obviously the kids loved the final result, and actually enjoyed the painstaking time it took to line each domino up just right, so it would have an impact on the others in line as they toppled over.  I loved the camp scene back in those days, and actually witnessed great strides in the kids growth and maturity from the lessons I related through games and activities while they were at camp.

Soon after my undergraduate years, I got married and took a job teaching and coaching at a small college in Grinnell, Iowa.  It was the coldest job I’ve ever had.  My wife and I had a baby boy while I was teaching in Iowa, and I saw that coaching would be out of the question if I ever wanted to spend some time watching my son grow up.  So I packed up my brief case with resumes and headed off to a National Conference in Detroit, Michigan, where I hoped to convince some University to hire me to teach and essentially disengage from coaching while pursuing a Ph.D.  I interviewed with every college that was there in Detroit, but during the interviews, it was apparent that the job recruiters were disinterested in looking at hiring a faculty member who had coaching experience.  So on one of my last interviews in Detroit, I was asked to step inside a booth to discuss my resume with some Texas A&M University recruiters.  It was late in the day and the interviewers, Dr. Linus Dowell and Dr. Leonard Ponder, looked exhausted.  I knew that this might become a pretty quick meeting.  They asked me about my experiences in academia and what kind of work that I was currently doing, and I noticed that as I was giving them the best story of my life, they were hardly paying attention to me.  After all, these two men had probably done the same to over fifty young professionals who had similar goals as I.  After the interview, they thanked me for dropping by, shook my hand and said their final “Texas Friendly” words. Trying to wade through being temporarily discouraged, for some odd reason I remembered that the owner of the camp where I worked in Branson, Missouri, six years earlier, was Spike White!  Mr. White was also the Campus Recreation Director at Texas A&M University!  So, I asked Dr. Dowell and Dr. Ponder to give Mr. Spike White my regards!  They both looked surprised and asked me to sit back down and wanted to know how I knew Spike White.  So, I explained to them I worked as a camp counselor at Branson, but never saw the need to place that camp experience on my resume.  The interviewers then proceeded to tell me that their Department at A&M had just been given the opportunity to run a summer camp near the Campus and asked if they hired me, as a faculty member, would I be interested in Directing their Camp in the summers.  Of course I said I would and we parted with the idea that they would contact me once they had a chance to discuss things over back at Texas A&M.  Weeks went by without hearing a word, and I decided that I would probably have to endure another cold, snow filled winter in Iowa, coaching football and track. My son was starting to stand upright, and my wife was beginning to get very restless knowing that she would have to be cooped up inside for another winter. 

When the phone rang and the voice of Dr. Ponder at A&M was on the line, I almost lost my control.  Ponder asked if I could move down to Texas and take a full-time position as a faculty member in their Health and Kinesiology Department.  So my wife and I sold our home and packed up the family and we all moved south.  As time went on, like it always does, I found my work at A&M had become as demanding as coaching ever was.  My wife and I drifted apart and it became evident that her discontent with me, my personality and my workaholic attitude would lead to our divorce.  Unfortunately, my son was in the middle of it all, and when she moved to Arizona, my son went with her.  Back in those days, there were no laws in Texas that protected fathers from having their ex-spouses move away, so I basically had to make a choice, either quit my job, forfeit my hours already spent in seeking a Doctorate Degree and move to Arizona to be close to my ex-wife, or try my best to visit as much as I could and hope that things would just work out as our son grew.

At the same time, the camp was in full swing and I had 100 kids that were depending on me to oversee their camp experience.  Divorce is always complicated, but during the three years I was A&M’s summer camp Director, I began to look at things without remorse and negativity.  I was working with kids, from the inner city Houston, who had seen more trauma in their short existence than I ever had as an adult.  I believed that there was a purpose for my existence at camp and took refuge in knowing that I was helping make the lives of these children a little more pleasant and self fulfilling.  When my camp directing days were over I began to reflect back on what life to me was about and sensed that the simple domino games I played with the kids may be an accurate reflection of how everyone’s lives are eventually revealed to them, whether they know it or not.  Ones action in life sets off another reaction, and you begin to realize that no mater how you meant to plan your life, no matter what lifelong goals you set for yourself, none of us really can predict what path our actions will take until the eventual outcomes or end-product on each path are revealed.

Years ago, I listened to Ken Robinson speak on the subject of Life, and he explained that we all generally think of life as being something linear, or in a straight line.  After all, our parents raised us to think that if you study hard, make good grades, be humble and kind to others, and keep ourselves on an even keel, we will always move forward.  So a “linear state” of us going through life is something that is consistently taught to us from an early age.  But as we grow, we begin to see that life has its ups and downs, we get cut from a team, our parents might get a divorce, or we may have a father or mother die of an early disease.  We marry the wrong person, we have a child unexpectedly, and we are faced with the tough decision of what we have to do to keep going forward.  Life, as Ken Robinson explains, is not linear, it is “Organic”!  As much as we would like to prepare for the inevitable chain of reactions in our life, we can never predict the outcomes.  Unpredictability should lead us to thinking that we have to be able to adapt and go with what is uncertain and react to fear and insecurities in a positive way.  Essentially making the best of what you have to work with!  If one is not able to make the best out of each chain reaction, out of each domino that falls, life will become a struggle and you may face the possibility of depression or the sense of failure in your life.

The one thing that is certain when I look back on my own life is that there are subtle little gifts that are presented to each of us all when the dominos of our lives begin to tumble.  We just don’t see them until the chain reactions come to a pause.  Like the dominos in line, the reaction sometimes continue to go forward even in the face of equilibrium.

As I graduated from high school at the little town of Southern Illinois, I realized that if I had not left my family, taken a scholarship to play athletics at the University of Missouri, leaving my hometown friends, a girlfriend, and my family, I would have never had the chance to go to Camp Kanakuk in Branson, Missouri.  Going forward, if it wasn’t for the summer job I had in Branson, Missouri, I would have never had the chance to make an impact on the interviewers from Texas A&M while attending a Conference.  Without the connection I had in knowing Spike White, I would have never had the opportunity to take a faculty position offered to me by interviewers at A&M while at a Conference Detroit, Michigan.  The chain reaction or domino effect that this interview had in Detroit basically changed my life forever! Taking a faculty job at Texas A&M led me to move to College Station and helped me to become the Professor that I am today.  Being the Director of the camp near A&M allowed me to influence hundreds of kids and helped make their summers a little more exciting and enjoyable.  Subtle little gifts and blessings that are given to us in the past can be revealed when one looks at life as being organic or as an outcome when the dominos of life begin to tumble in motion.  When those dominos fall onto others, making right turns while colliding against their corners, moving uphill and downhill in their chain reactions, until they eventually come to a halt, their outcomes finally reveal themselves.

If I had never gone to Texas A&M I would have never had my Camp Director’s experience or faculty position, I may have never received my Ph.D. and would never have been qualified enough to take a Professor’s position at Corpus Christi, Texas, where I met the love of my life, married and had the blessing of raising three little girls. As I progressed to an Administration position at Texas State University, my wife and girls were all influenced by an academic lifestyle, they all finished their college degrees and are all able to look back on their own domino effects and see their forests beyond the trees.

As I reached my 66th year in age, as a teacher, coach, administrator and a father to four beautiful adults, I keep looking for new subtle blessings and gifts that present themselves.  But I know that it may take years to finally find the connection or outcome.  My wife is an artist, and after 27 years of being married, I’ve begun to paint and look for a new chain reaction.  As a result of watching, listening and helping my wife deliver paintings and having art shows, I’m just now believing that being married to an artist has presented me with a subtle gift that I had no idea I would ever possess.  Perhaps this blessing started years ago as I was taking art classes in grade school, and it was in hiding until I married an artist and began to look at retirement as a step to becoming more creative.  The art of painting wildlife is just now revealing itself as a way to move forward to another outcome, one of knowing that I can be creative as an artist.  Whatever the case or gift that is brought before you, understanding what it takes to grow with your journeys and look at each turn or effect in your domino line, because it may begin a path to something else and a way to move yourself forward. My hope is that those little blessings or gifts you are presented, when things make a turn in your life, will be inspiring once you look at them from a distance.


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