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For Epiphany cross retriever, event is family affair

TARPON SPRINGS — The trophy given to the 105th Epiphany cross retriever bears his great-grandfather's name, Louis M. Pappas.

His grandfather's name also is on the trophy because some 30 years ago, Jack Louis Pappas, 81, started donating it in support of the Greek Orthodox tradition of diving for a white cross to represent the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.

Now Louis "Louie" Nicholas Pappas' name will be added to the gold cup.

As a crowd of about 12,000 looked on Thursday afternoon, Pappas, 17, emerged from the murky waters of Spring Bayou clutching the coveted cross in his right hand. As the retriever of the cross, according to the Greek Orthodox faith, Pappas will receive blessings from God.

"I'm just really thankful that my grandfather was here to see this," Pappas said, still in the dripping wet T-shirt bearing a blue cross he wore for the dive. "He's been so supportive. I'm really happy I can do this for him because me and my grandfather are really close."

It was an extra special day for Jack Louis Pappas, who was overjoyed that his grandson emerged from the 62-degree waters, besting 74 other boys between the ages of 16 and 18, with the cross in his hand. Thursday was his 81st birthday.

"I just can't tell you how I feel," Jack Louis Pappas said. "I'm overwhelmed. I just can't tell you. And on my birthday. It's just overwhelming."

Tarpon Springs' Epiphany Day celebration is the largest in the United States. It started Thursday with a morning church service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral led by Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. There was then a procession through the town to Spring Bayou where a single white dove was released.

After the cross was retrieved, 105 white doves were released in commemoration of the 105th celebration.

The divers were led by last year's cross retriever Dimitri Kalogiannis of New Port Richey.

There were supposed to be 78 divers Thursday but one became ill before the services started, another missed a mandatory meeting and another became sick and had to be removed after swimming to one of the 12 dinghies just before the cross dive.

Pappas wasn't feeling well Wednesday night and contemplated not diving.

His parents said it would be okay if he opted out. But a conversation with his cousin Tommy Koulouris, 25, helped him see things clearer.

"You only get a few chances to try and retrieve the cross," Pappas said of the conclusion of the conversation. "I decided to go ahead and do it."

Once the signal was given Thursday, Pappas, who led Tarpon Springs High's football team and the county in passing last football season, made his way to the first boat on the left. Inside the boat, he waited as prayer was said and a dove was released. Another prayer was said and then the cross hit the water.

"I just swam in the direction that it hit the water, and I just went under," Pappas said. "I opened my eyes, and there it was on the bottom. It was a blessing."

Pappas isn't the only member of the family to retrieve the cross. In 2001, his cousin, Lucas Louis "Luke" Pappas, 28, was the retriever.

The family is one of Tarpon Springs' best known. His great-grandfather, Louis M. Pappas, is known for creating the Greek salad as we know it with a scoop of potato salad and starting the popular restaurant that served the region for decades.

Louis Jack Pappas, 51, and his wife, Rosanne, 50, were both joyful and speechless of their son's accomplishments.

"You never think one of your children will be the one to get it," Louis Jack Pappas said. "I can't explain it, but it's a feeling that I've never had in my life. It's been an unbelievable time for Louie, but this trumps everything. This is the highest honor he could ever get in his life."

Nicholas Souder was just as pleased about Thursday's event but for a slightly different reason. It was the first time that he made the cross that was thrown. His grandfather, Bill Paskalakis, made the cross for 40 years. He died last year. Souder carried on the tradition of making the cross.

"It was amazing to watch," Souder, 24, said. "I'm happy and honored to be a part of it."

Louis Nicholas Pappas made his way to the home of John and Cyndi Tarapani, longtime family friends. That's where his family and friends awaited him. They hugged and kissed him. He showered, changed clothes and headed back to the church and community center.

Once there, everyone was waiting to hug and kiss him with the hope that his expected blessings also will pass to them.

"In the shower, I put my head in the towel and when I looked up, it was still surreal," Pappas said while walking back to the church. "It's something that everyone dreams of growing up in Tarpon. To be able to get it out of 75 guys is surreal."

Contact Demorris A. Lee at dalee@sptimes or (727) 445-4174.

For Epiphany cross retriever, event is family affair 01/06/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 10:43am]
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