TARPON SPRINGS — His life was an example of the American dream, those who knew him say.
Michael George Cantonis came to Tarpon Springs from Greece when he was in his teens after a stop at Ellis Island. He later borrowed $1,000 and founded Acme Sponge & Chamois Co., which today is the largest distributor of natural and synthetic sponge and chamois.
Mr. Cantonis died Tuesday morning (Nov. 17, 2009) of a heart attack and complications from a compression fracture after a fall. He was 94.
"He's an American story," said former U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, 79, who knew Mr. Cantonis for more than 30 years. "He took advantage of the opportunities afforded by this country and was able to become a wealthy man."
Anita Protos, a former Tarpon Springs mayor, said Mr. Cantonis proved America is the land of opportunity.
"He showed that if you work hard, you can achieve the American dream," Protos, 67, said. "We've lost an icon, and it was my honor to be a friend of Mike Cantonis."
While an astute businessman, Mr. Cantonis' legacy will be his philanthropy, those who knew him say. "There is not an institution in this town that he hasn't given to," Protos said. "He was a giving man."
There was the matching grant for the town's new library, and the contributions to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and the needy families he helped behind the scenes. There were the donations to the Boys & Girls Club and the pool he built so there could be swimming at his grandchildren's school, Berkeley Prep in Tampa.
There's the Endowment Fund at the University of Florida in Gainesville for the Department of Greek Studies and the Michael G. Cantonis Sanctuary Fund at St. Michael the Archangel in Lecanto, which helped build a new church and community center. And there's the emergency room at Morton Plant Hospital, which is named for Mr. Cantonis and his wife, Anastasia, in honor of their lead contribution to its construction.
"He felt so very strongly that as he was blessed, and for him the blessing was opportunity, he felt an obligation to give," said George Cantonis, 61, the eldest of Mr. Cantonis' two sons and a daughter. "His charitable support was just astounding. He felt he had to help out other people, and that's a tradition the rest of the family has carried on."
George Cantonis said his father's main mission was to bring his younger three brothers to America from Symi, Greece. And one at a time, he managed to get them to the United States.
When first arriving in Tarpon Springs, Mr. Cantonis worked at his uncle's sponge company for a couple of years before loading the trunk of his Chrysler DeSoto with a bale of sponge and heading to New York to start his company.
In 1947, he moved his company to Chicago and married Anastasia Harras. After managing the company for 30 years in Chicago, Mr. Cantonis moved the company to Tarpon Springs in 1977. It remains there to this day.
"He was an incredible ball of energy," said George Cantonis, who along with his brother and brother-in-law now run the business. "We can list adjectives to describe him all day, but whatever he got involved with, he was a force.
"And whether it was volunteering with the church, his family or the business, he was always true to his principles."
George Billiris, 82, the husband of current Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris, has known Mr. Cantonis nearly all his life. He said it was simple to describe his good friend.
"He was a gentlemen," Billiris said, "and he did a lot of good."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174