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Volunteer keeps lighthouse ‘heart’ pumping

Chris Specht, a Fire Island Lighthouse volunteer and

Chris Specht, a Fire Island Lighthouse volunteer and a former aviation electrician, explains the rotating lens mechanism in the lighthouse's lantern room. (April 12, 2010) Photo Credit: Erin Geismar

Christian Specht climbs seven stories to the top of the Fire Island Lighthouse at least once a week, stopping to rest at each of the windows every few stories.

Sometimes the weekly lighthouse volunteer is cleaning out the rotating lens mechanism and adding fuel. Sometimes he’s washing the glass windows from inside the lantern room. In the summer, he’s washing them from the outside, with a 360-degree view of Long Island, Fire Island and the Atlantic Ocean.

“You have to carry the water up,” he said. “You can’t get a hose up that high.”

Specht, 73, of Wantagh, has been volunteering at the lighthouse for six years and said he’ll continue to do so until it stops being fun.

The lighthouse operates under an agreement between the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society and the National Parks Service, said David Griese, administrator for the preservation society; and it depends largely on its 100 or so volunteers.

Specht, who volunteers on Tuesdays but more often than not swings by the lighthouse a few times a week, was a Pan America aviation electrician for 32 years until the day the company shuttered. As a result, he is a jack of all trades when it comes to lighthouse volunteers.

He said he’s done everything from washing windows to electrical work, and also gives tours to students and other visitors if the staff is shorthanded.

“Chris does everything, he’s just fantastic all-around,” Griese said. “Chris is able to provide us with the expertise of the mechanical and maintenance, all those little things it takes in the back scenes to keep the operation going.”

About three years ago, a group of volunteers, Specht included, engineered an electrical switchboard, which allows them to monitor the lighthouse lens from the generator room, which he calls “the heart” of the lighthouse.

From the switchboard, he said he can tell at a glance that the lens is lit and rotating properly.

“It’s so advanced, it’s really unreal,” he said. “It monitors the rotation of the light and we can maintain it right from the basement.”

Specht said he and his wife, Joan - who volunteers in the lighthouse gift shop - have always been fascinated by lighthouses. He said they’ve climbed towers from around the Great Lakes to the Florida Keys.

Specht’s voice is full of excitement when he talks about the multi-million dollar original lighthouse lens that is being restored for display in a brand new building under construction next to the lighthouse.

The first-order Fresnel lens, from the original lighthouse built in 1858, was taken from Fire Island in 1933 and put on display in a museum in Philadelphia. Now that the lens is back on Fire Island, said Griese, the society wanted to properly display it and honor its history. The building, modeled after a historic powerhouse, will open and the 18-foot-tall lens will be dedicated in July.

Volunteers are once again playing an important role, Griese said, because in today’s economy, the society could not have afforded to build the $1.2-million lens house, which instead is being completed for about $500,000 thanks to the help of 27 organizations that volunteered their services.

All of the volunteers’ names, including Specht’s, have been written on a beam that runs under the building.

Specht said his work at the lighthouse hardly feels like work.

“It feels great when you go home,” he said. “Like you’re helping keep history alive.”

Pictured above: Chris Specht, a Fire Island Lighthouse volunteer and a former aviation electrician, explains the rotating lens mechanism in the lighthouse's lantern room. (April 12, 2010)

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