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A Florida leap year mystery led us to a universe of February 29 fans

A wedding billboard. A coffee table book. A cruise to the Bahamas. We jumped into all things leap day.

My leap day obsession began with a grainy black and white photograph of the side of U.S. 19 in Port Richey. A couple stands underneath a billboard, beaming. The words above them:

John Loves Sarah

and

will prove it on Feb. 29, 1992

John Brannigan and Sarah Johnston Pose under the billboard that announces their leap day wedding. The billboard is on U.S. 19, just south of Ridge Road in Port Richey. [Times (1992)]

The couple told reporters they wanted to make their marriage fun. So, they got married at John Brannigan’s workplace — the Pasco County Jail.

Did their love last? How did they end up handling the anniversary? And why, of all days, did they pick leap day?

I was on the hunt for leap day stories, but this one turned out to be more of a mystery. The Brannigans both died in recent years. Their surviving children didn’t respond to multiple interview requests. So I set out looking for answers.

Throughout the search, the last question — why leap day — stuck out to me. I wondered: how else were Floridians using that rare extra day? After all, a leap year only comes once every four years.

I asked for stories. They took me down the rabbit hole.

• • •

The first person to respond to my callout was Peter Laches, a Tampa ‘Leaper’ who works at MacDill Air Force Base.

On non-leap years, Laches commemorates his birthday with an indulgent weekend that he calls Pete-a-Palooza.

“Somewhere in this weekend is the celebration of my birth,” he said.

Every four years, Laches’ friends choose “age appropriate” gifts to match how old he is turning in leap years. Think coloring books, a ball on a rubber band, a gyroscope. When he turned 52 last leap year, his “13th” birthday gift was a pogo stick.

2020 will be different for Laches. For the first time, he will spend his special day in St. Pete with another leaper — his cousin’s wife, Paula Smyth.

Not only does Smyth share the Feb. 29 birthday with Laches, she was also born in the same year: 1964.

“Isn’t that freaky?” he said. “As far as I know, that’s the only other leaper I’ve met, and she’s family.”

Smyth and her husband are flying down from Connecticut to ring in the shared birthday with Laches on a PedalPub.

• • •

Where did Laches get the term Leaper, anyway? He pointed me to a Facebook group.

The social media site has dozens of groups dedicated to Leap Day: Parents of Leap Day Babies. Leap Year Day Music About February 29. “Leap Day Rocks,” where members decorate stones with “leapyearday.com” and hide them around their cities.

Most of the leap day fanfare online stems from one community, The Honor Society of Leap Day Babies.

Raenell Dawn, also known as Her Royal Leapness, started the group eight leap years ago, in 1988. Back then, the Honor Society was just a birthday club with 21 people. Today, it boasts over 11,000.

“I wanted to find other people who had the same experiences I did, the same questions I always got," Dawn said. "Did they get teased when they were little like I did? Do they think it’s fun being born on such a cool day like I did?”

By 1997, leapyearday.com was created to document club happenings. The website now features leap day poems, tattoos, world records and merchandise. There’s even a Leaptionary where Dawn defines phrases like leapling (an infant born on Feb. 29, "like a little duckling.”), leapophile (one who collects leap day items) and leapship (a relationship between two leapers).

Leapyearday.com is the headquarters of all things Leap Day. [Screenshot, leapyearday.com]

Facebook pages and groups have proven the main method for leap day babies to connect. On the Honor Society group, members post memes and discounts for Feb. 29. Some exchange birthday cards around the country. One is even filming a documentary. Spinoff groups for leap day babies have spread to cities around the world.

Dawn operates the club from her home office in Oregon, which is filled with frog swag (a natural fit for the role of mascot). But it’s not all fun and games. The society is also trying to stop hospitals from changing dates on birth certificates and urge government agencies and retailers to update their technology so Feb. 29 is accepted as a valid date.

Dawn may have dedicated a huge part of her life to other Leapers, but she encourages everyone to celebrate Feb. 29 with intention.

“It’s not only our birthday,” Dawn said. “Leap day is everyone’s extra day. Do something good with it.”

• • •

One non-leaper is using the groups to do just that. Tampa photographer Amie Santavicca is on a quest to document Florida’s leap day babies.

Inspired by a friend with a Feb. 29 birthday, Santavicca set out to photograph as many leapers as she could. She plans to make a coffee table book out of it.

“It almost makes up part of these people's personality, and I love that,” she said. “These people don’t really get to celebrate like everybody else, so I thought to give them, in exchange for their time, an interesting birthday portrait.”

Santavicca used Facebook groups to find her subjects and has traveled as far as six hours to set up shoots. Armed with cakes and streamers, she transforms each leapster’s home into a birthday party that corresponds with their leap day age. A model turning 28, for example, posed as if she was celebrating a 7th birthday party.

Caitlyn Liker, 28, of Citrus County, is celebrating her seventh leap day birthday. Photographer Amie Santavicca is documenting leap day birthdays around Florida. [Courtesy of Amie Santavicca]

For an extra layer, Santavicca throws in a bit of time traveling. If the leaper is modeling in the style of a 4th birthday party and turned 4 in the 80s, the photo shoot is 80s-themed.

“I want it to be a little bit chaotic,” she said. “It feels like you're actually in the birthday party.”

• • •

Florida became the meeting place for dozens of Leapers this week.

It’s where 250 people — including 79 Leapers — boarded a cruise to the Bahamas.

The celebration kicked off with a welcome reception for leapers and their families Wednesday in Orlando. The ship departs from Port Canaveral Thursday and will make it to the Bahamas before a formal leap day ball on Feb. 29. (The name references balls held during leap years in the Victorian era, which were rare occasions that allowed women to propose to men.)

The Leap Day Cruise departs from Florida before making stops at Nassau and Freeport in the Bahamas. [Screenshot, leapdaycruise.com]

Karen Tinsley-Sroka, of Belleville, Illinois, started planning the cruise after joining the Honor Society three years ago.

Even before stepping on board, she had already made a Facebook group to start planning the 2024 Leap Day celebration. She hopes to draw over 250 leapers in order to break the current Guinness World record for the “largest same birthday gathering.”

Before organizing the cruise, Tinsley-Sroka had only met three leap day babies in her life.

“I’m just looking forward to walking away from this experience saying that I know 79 other leap day babies that I’ve never met before,” she said. “We’re less than 1 percent of the population.”

• • •

A whole universe swirls around leap day, I had learned, but I was still wondering: Whatever happened to the Brannigans?

John and Sarah, the billboard couple, stayed together after their leap day marriage, according to Times clips I dug up after redoubling my search.

They only celebrated the anniversary every four years. Brannigan told a reporter he’d had four reasons for picking leap day.

"Number one: I can save 75 percent on my anniversary gifts,” he said. “Number two: I can only forget my anniversary 25 percent of the time. Number three: It’s a special day. And number four: I’m in love.”

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