For four decades, Bill Paskalakis' hands and faith shaped a treasured token of Epiphany in Tarpon Springs.
The retired Tarpon Springs High shop teacher and coach lovingly created the crosses tossed each year into Spring Bayou and chased into the murky water by legions of young men.
Mr. Paskalakis, who began crafting the crosses in 1970, died Tuesday, March 30 at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital. He was 74.
When Mr. Paskalakis taught shop, he usually made the crosses there.
Students who were going to dive for the cross wouldn't go near them.
"They think it's a jinx to touch it ahead of time," he said in a 2000 interview.
Each year he'd fashion two 9- by 11-inch crosses — a second in case the first was lost — from oak, weighting them down with lead, coating and recoating them with enamel, holding them like a blessing in his home until they were needed.
Mr. Paskalakis, a Greek Orthodox native of Tarpon Springs, dived for the cross as a young man. But he never came up with it.
"I touched it once," he recalled in a 2000 interview.
Over the years, he said, men who did recover the cross came to see him.
"They hug me and say thanks for making it," he said.
Every so often, someone would ask him to make a cross. His answer is always the same.
"I won't make them for anyone else," he said. "It's a very religious thing for me. I will not make any others."
Recently, he had begun training his grandson, 23-year-old Nicholas, to carry on the tradition. Nicholas plans to pass the art along to his cousins as well, keeping the honor in the family.
Mr. Paskalakis was born April 5, 1935, on Mill Street near the Sponge Docks.
In the early 1950s, he played football for the Spongers. In 1954, the 175-pound halfback was awarded an athletic scholarship from Florida State University.
That same year he earned the title of "Best Physique" among his high school peers.
He served in the Marine Corps Reserves.
In 1970, he returned to Tarpon High as the shop teacher and was approached by church officials to make the crosses.
He retired in 1991, but continued to work at Tarpon Middle until 1996.
"His years at Tarpon Middle were very different for him and something very special, teaching multiple subjects to at-risk groups," said his daughter, Elaine Sarris. "He learned as much from them as they did from him and felt he was able to make a difference."
He was a member of AHEPA George Washington Chapter 16 and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, where he served on the Parish Council, and was a board member of the Tarpon Springs Boys and Girls Club.
"Dad was a very loving and giving man, so full of life," Sarris said. "He spent every free hour giving back to the community and inspiring others to do so. Community stewardship was important to him."
Mr. Paskalakis is survived by his wife, Charlyn; a son, Todd Paskalakis; five daughters, Elaine Sarris, Dayna Karaphillis, Flora Linton, Anastasia McGee, and Tina Kritsepis; and five grandchildren.
The family will receive friends from 4 to 7 p.m., during which a Trisagion service will take place at 6 p.m. Friday at Vinson's Funeral Home, 456 E Tarpon Ave., Tarpon Springs. A funeral service will be Saturday at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 36 North Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the St. Nicholas Epiphany Cross Fund through St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.