CLEARWATER — Since 1958, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce has honored a Mr. or Mrs. Clearwater at its annual meeting, giving the traditional navy blue blazer to a local person with a strong record of community service and community leadership.
Tuesday night, George Cantonis and his wife, Maria, both slipped on the blazers that represent the highest honor given by the chamber.
The award was a surprise to the couple. It had been kept secret but was revealed at the beginning of the 89th annual chamber meeting, held at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort. The couple had believed they were attending the meeting to see friends get the award.
"I am completely blown away," said George Cantonis, with his wife by his side.
They both thanked their peers and families for the recognition and pledged to continue their service.
It was obvious the Cantonises don't seek out the limelight.
"This kind of thing has always made me uncomfortable," he said.
"Clearwater is an incredible community."
It is only the third time in the history of the award that a couple has received it.
The Cantonises were joined by their sons Michael, who works in Tampa, and Spiro, who made a surprise visit from Boston.
Holly Duncan, president and CEO of the Morton Plant Mease Foundation and previous Mrs. Clearwater, said the Cantonises have dedicated themselves to improving as many aspects of the community as they could.
She said whether it's their involvement with Morton Plant Mease or Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Cantonises have been instrumental in molding Clearwater's quality of life.
"They have been generous with their time and money," she said.
Besides running the family business in Tarpon Springs, Acme Sponge and Chamois, George Cantonis has served as chairman of the board of directors for Ruth Eckerd Hall, Morton Plant Mease and BayCare Health System.
Maria Cantonis has long been a local advocate for the arts, holding leadership positions with the Florida Orchestra's arts and education program, Clearwater Arts Foundation and the Junior League of Clearwater-Dunedin.
The Cantonises were instrumental in the construction of the emergency room at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater and have been involved in the Greek Orthodox Church locally and nationally.
Duncan called them the "quintessential Clearwater couple."
The chamber also named David Yates, Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO, as "Tourism Person of the Year."
He was recognized for his success in promoting the story of Winter, a dolphin who lost her tail after getting tangled in crab trap off the coast of Cape Canaveral. Winter was taken in by the aquarium and later given a prosthetic tail.
Her story became famous worldwide, ignited interest in the aquarium, and eventually became the subject of a major motion picture, set to be released this year.
Chamber member Lisa Chandler touted the boost the city has received from Yates' efforts to promote Winter's story.
"Most recently, during one of the most challenging economic recessions, the filming of A Dolphin's Tale brought an estimated $125,000 per day or $3.75 million into the local economy over a four-month period," she said.
The Tuesday banquet was a sellout, with many local luminaries and previous award winners in attendance. Other awards announced Tuesday included:
• Small Business of the Year: Katherine Jones, State Farm agent.
• Medium Business of the Year: Solar Sanitation of Clearwater, which has been in business for 30 years.
• Large Business of the Year: PBSJ, an Atkins company. The engineering design company has worked in the Tampa Bay area for almost 40 years and designed the Clearwater Beach Walk.
• Small Nonprofit of the Year: Willa Carson Health Resource Center, which provides basic health services for free.
• Medium Nonprofit of the Year: Tampa Bay 2-1-1, which links individuals needing help to providers of health and human services.
• Large Nonprofit of the Year: YMCA of the Suncoast, which is committed to strengthening communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.
• Judges Choice Business: Sun County Cleaners. Established 30 years ago, the company has expanded to 28 locations throughout Pinellas County.
• Ambassador of the Year: Jay Steinberg of VJ Consulting.
• Phillies All-Star Community Award: Bright House Networks, for its commitment to good business and corporate philanthropy.