TARPON SPRINGS — The once-golden cross is chipped and faded, but it still shines for Hercules Ypsilantis.
Almost 70 years have passed since he retrieved it from Spring Bayou during the annual Epiphany Celebration in Tarpon Springs. Tradition says the boy who retrieves it first will get a year of blessings from God.
But to Ypsilantis, it gave him a lifetime.
"It has been my guardian angel," he said from his home in Tarpon Springs, where the cross hangs on his wall.
At 86, Ypsilantis is the oldest living cross retriever in the local celebration, organizers said. Epiphany officials honored him Jan. 5 during the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony the day before this year’s celebration. There, he had a message for the 57 teenage boys who went on to brave the chilly waters.
"Every place I went, I had my cross. It’s brought me a lot of good luck," he said. "I wish you all a long life of happiness."
It was 1949 when Ypsilantis took his first and only plunge at 17. In those days, participants were primarily sponge divers or crew members who would row their own dinghies from the Sponge Docks to the bayou, said Michael Kouskoutis, a longtime Epiphany dive coordinator.
"If you retrieved the cross ... it was said it would bless the health and welfare for your crew, your boat for the upcoming sponge season," he said.
Ypsilantis, a Tarpon Springs High student and cheerleader, borrowed a boat from a friend. There was no age limit like the one in place today that allows divers only 16 to 18 years old. At 6 feet tall and 126 pounds — a self-described "bean pole" — Ypsilantis was competing with grown men.
"When you hit the water, there was no strategy," he said. "You just grab."
The moment he wrapped his fingers around the cross, Ypsilantis swam away from the horde in the water to make sure no one tried to swipe it from him. Newspaper clippings provided by Ypsilantis’ daughter recount the moment the boy became the envy of Tarpon Springs. Photos show him beaming as a bishop pressed the cross on his wet hair, blessing him for the year to come.
His parents, who both immigrated from Greece, couldn’t believe the news as it spread through the tight-knit community and beyond. His father, who was out of town working at the time, thought Ypsilantis had been arrested when friends asked him if he’d heard. His mother, at home in Tarpon Springs, thought he had been hurt before friends told her: "No, he caught the cross!"
"I didn’t even have to tell her," Ypsilantis said. "The Greeks in this town are like a gazette."
Ypsilantis went on to serve in the Navy during the Korean War. On his 24th birthday, he had an experience that solidified his faith. He fell asleep at the wheel while driving and careened over a 118-foot embankment. He should have died, he said, but he emerged with just a broken leg.
He went on to work for Greyhound, driving buses millions of miles around the country, to Salt Lake City and San Francisco and towns in Alaska. A newspaper clipping Ypsilantis keeps framed in his home says he drove 2 million miles in 25 years with no accidents.
Through all his journeys, Ypsilantis said he felt protected by his faith. He stayed Greek Orthodox throughout his life, even after marrying a Mormon woman who tried to convert him.
"My standard answer was, ‘I was born Greek Orthodox, and I’ll die Greek Orthodox,’" he said.
She ended up converting instead, he said.
After his retirement, he returned to Tarpon Springs in the 1990s. It was a different city from the one he grew up in, where he worked for a baker for 9 cents a week and families could buy homes for a few hundred dollars.
But Epiphany continued on. His cousin’s grandson, Miros Petru, became one of four boys named cross retrievers in 2012. Ypsilantis recounted the unprecedented tale, of the archbishop throwing in the first cross, then another when the first wasn’t found. One boy grabbed the second cross, Petru found the first, and two other boys were determined to have grabbed the second cross before it was swiped away.
It was a memorable distinction for Petru, underlined by his shared experience with Ypsilantis, who he considers like a grandfather.
"It was an honor to hold that title with him," Petru, now 23, said.
But beyond the title, he experienced the same magnetism toward his faith, Petru said. Or, in Ypsilantis’ words of advice to divers past and present:
"If they believe in Christ, the church," he said, "there would be nothing they couldn’t accomplish."
Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.