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Skater Scholar

Dan Reilly’s memorable first “set of wheels “ was not a car. In 1974, in Brooklyn, NY, he custom made his own skateboard out of roller skate wheels and a 2×4 piece of plywood. At the age of 12, this was just the beginning of a ride that would lead to his life long interest in skateboarding and eventually to his self declared title, “Skateboard Historian.”

“Before commercial ones, kids would make their own skateboards by sawing a skate in half,” says Reilly. “You would go to the top of a hill and let it take you down — slow and bumpy,” he laughs.

A year after building his own skateboard, Reilly saw his first issue of Skateboarder magazine and was “hooked.”

“I saved my allowance from all of my chores, piece by piece, until I got the skateboard I wanted,” he adds, noting that his opinion changed over time about the premier skateboard. He altered his board to suit his tastes, always saving his own money and remodeling it himself.

It was tough to get new wheels and boards coming from a working class family. He saved money he earned shoveling snow, and doing “tough chores” which would bring in $5. It took time to earn the best board, but then it was even more treasured.

“If I had to save six weeks’ allowance to get a certain set of wheels, they were beautiful and precious,” he reminisces. “They looked like jewels.”

The passion, obvious in nostalgic memories like that one, has never abated for the 46-year-old Arlington resident and former school teacher. Today, Reilly maintains his self-appointed status as a “skateboard historian” by sharing the sport's past with others. He will hold a free skateboard seminar, open to the public, on Saturday, May 3, at 2 p.m. at Powhatan Skateboard Park in Arlington.

Reilly can trace skateboarding from its roots in the 1950s, when California surfers created the skateboard just as Reilly did, with roller skates and pieces of collected boards. They skated when the surf wasn’t right, or after surfing, since skateboarding was the best way to recreate the feeling of riding a wave.

In the 1960s, companies such as Makaha and Hobie started to mass produce boards, and the first skateboard contest was held in Hermosa Beach, Calif. in 1963. But just as the sports momentum began to build, injuries forced it to a halt in 1965.

“No one wore safety equipment,” says Reilly. “Boys will be boys, and there were broken bones.”

Skateboarding was outlawed in many areas, and declared unsafe. Boards were shelved and didn’t reappear until the 1970s with improvements.

In 1972, a soft wheel was introduced and by 1973 this urethane wheel, made by Cadillac and widely used in roller rinks at the time, was mass distributed. Tricks were done on flat ground and empty concrete swimming pools became popular skate parks.

“Surfboard companies advertised skateboards in Surfer magazine,” Reilly notes. This boosted popularity, as did Skateboarder magazine, which Reilly personally collected for years. He made notes in the margins as he compiled his “wish list” of boards and parts. He still has the old magazines, with notes, today.

As the technology improved, Reilly's list evolved with it. Faster boards appeared in 1975, resulting from sealed bearings packed in grease, made by Road Rider. In 1976, Kryptonics created the resilient wheel. In 1977, more than 30 companies were producing skateboards with wider “trucks,” the part that holds the wheels, and better steering mechanisms.

By the end of the decade, big contests were being held, Skateboarder magazine was bursting with ads and companies were fueled by the money they were making. The first two skateboard parks appeared, one in Carlsbad, Calif., and one in Tomoka Moon Forest, Fla.

With the increasing popularity of the sport and the improving technology, some elements, such as tricks, began to evolve.

“[For a while] the coolest thing you could do was called ‘hanging 3’,” smiles Reilly. “You would hang three wheels over the top edge of the pool.” Reilly noted that the move took a lot of practice, as did learning how to ride up the wall of the pool, but soon those tricks were left in the dust.

“Out in California, the ‘ariel’ was invented,” Reilly recounts. “You would get enough speed to pop out of the edge of the pool into the air and time it so you would go back on the board. This was done by the professionals in the magazines — none of my friends could do it.” However, he noted with surprise that he saw a kid perform an ariel the other day at Arlington's Powhatan Skateboard Park.

The 1980s, saw the skateboarding industry screech to a halt with the age of lawsuits, closing all skateboard parks. New street skating started. The wholesome surfer look turned negative and the image was replaced by that of city kids skating on park benches and the steps and railings of government buildings. There were rarely any helmets worn.

At the end of the 1980s, parks started to open again and helmets were being worn, fences posted “skate at your own risk” signs, in addition to posting requirements for the use of helmets, elbow and knee pads. By the mid 1990s, street-style skating had made a comeback, and that has continued to the present day.

Reilly is happy that the sport is now popular again. In addition to being fun, skateboarding taught him valuable life lessons, such as how to save money to achieve goals, and how to be part of a team. He learned to work together with his skater friends collecting wood and building ramps, and although now he is more of a collector and historian than an actual skater, Reilly does occasionally do tricks for his 17-year-old son and his friends.

“Skateboarding taught me the laws of the jungle,” he explains, referring to the ways of the world.

Those social graces have served him well in his teaching career which took him throughout the globe from Rome to Spain. After retiring from teaching, Reilly is pursuing a master's in literacy at George Mason University. In his spare time, Reilly gives free educational programs on the history of skateboarding like the one scheduled for May 3. He plans to display his more than 50 skateboards and issues of Skateboarder magazine dating back to the 1960s.

His current hobby is searching eBay for old skateboards. The first time he realized there were collector boards available, he again felt the thrill first found in his youth.

“Wow. One hundred boards popped up,” Reilly says of his first eBay search. “I was so happy — just like when I was a kid.”