TARPON SPRINGS — In January 1938, scores of boys waited in chilly, murky water for the most exciting moment of the Epiphany Celebration.
Tossing the cross into Spring Bayou culminates a day of celebration for the area's Greek community, starting with a service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and a procession through town.
Whoever retrieves the cross is supposed to have a year of good luck. Anthony Houllis, who found the cross nearly 74 years ago, followed his good fortune for a lifetime.
He worked in a family restaurant business, stayed close to his beloved water and was active in his community. Mr. Houllis, who had been the oldest living person to retrieve the Epiphany cross, died Nov. 23. He was 91.
Mr. Houllis worked as a comptroller for Pappas family restaurants. The job seemed ready made for the meticulous man with a head for numbers.
"He was totally organized," said Brook Stamas, his granddaughter. "At Pappas (restaurants), he had perfectly pressed and color-coordinated suits, handkerchiefs and tie clips. His tackle box, his fishing rods, all his stuff was perfectly kept. His tools were immaculate."
He grew up in Tarpon Springs and quarterbacked the football team at Tarpon Springs High. He met Bertha Pappas in high school.
"By graduation, we fell for each other," said Pappas, 89.
Fathers picked suitable marriage partners for their children in those days, she said. But they did not want to wait.
Mr. Houllis showed up at her house, knocked on the door and told her father, restaurant founder Louis Pappas, that he wanted to marry his daughter.
Mr. Houllis served in a radio squadron of the Army Air Forces in England, Germany and France, where he prided himself on being able to memorize the identification tag numbers of his fellow soldiers.
After returning to his wife, he worked for Pappas Restaurant in Tarpon Springs. He kept the books in order when the family added restaurants in South Pasadena and Tampa.
Away from work, he loved fishing and Florida Gators football.
All of that changed, however, when grandson Anthony Houllis, a Tarpon Springs High standout, played safety at Florida State.
"My granddad was an avid Gator fan," Stamas said. ""The day Anthony got on the (FSU Seminoles) football team, everything came down off the walls and it went to Florida State. The day he left, it all came down and the Gator stuff came back."
The younger Anthony Houllis, 26, called his grandfather a mentor. "He kind of set the standard for how to live your life as a Houllis," he said.
His wife can still tell the story of the event that changed her husband's life. She was standing near the banks that day in 1938.
"The bishop threw it from a dock," Pappas said. The cross was gold-plated then, she said.
"He saw it shining. He reached out and he grabbed it."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.