TARPON SPRINGS — George Michael Billiris first fell in love at 14. But it wasn't a girl he was moonstruck over. It was sea sponges.
Following in his Greek family's footsteps, he had begun sponge diving, and it didn't take long for the industry to become his lifelong labor of love.
After years of work promoting its history in the city, Mr. Billiris died on Sept. 1. He was 89.
To Mr. Billiris, diving was something bigger than himself — it was about family tradition, hard work, and pride in Greek heritage. Tarpon Springs had become the sponging capital of the world, and Mr. Billiris had simultaneously become the voice of it. He knew the niche had the potential to give the small, coastal city its claim to fame for years to come.
"Tarpon was his heart and soul," said Beverley Billiris, his wife of 36 years and former mayor. "He lived and breathed the sponge industry."
Even when disease in the water wiped out all the sponge beds close to Tarpon in the 1940s, killing the industry, Mr. Billiris was determined to keep it alive. He made more than 40 documentaries about its history in the city and worked to turn the Sponge Docks into a tourist attraction that would draw people from around the globe.
"He wanted to give people from around the world an idea of what the industry was like," Beverley Billiris said. "He wanted to share the story and do his part to keep it going."
In the 1970s, Mr. Billiris had another idea. He took a hopeful boat ride out off the coast of Tarpon to see if any sponge beds had grown back over the years. When he saw that they had, he knew it was time to re-create the industry of the past and started bringing divers from Greece to Tarpon to teach Americans the trade.
The sponge business was booming again, and the tourism industry it had inspired followed suit.
"He used to always say, 'We are not a Mickey Mouse. We are authentic, we are real. We didn't create it, it created us,'" Beverley Billiris said. "It was all about preserving the history of Tarpon Springs to him, and he never wanted that to change. He knew that's what people came here for."
She said her husband was so passionate about preserving the Sponge Docks that he would "literally fight City Hall over it" — something that sometimes got questionable, considering his wife was mayor.
"One time I had to say 'Mr. Billiris, could you please sit down,'" she remembered. "I told him he couldn't get up and speak on something when I had to vote on it. ... Everybody just laughed."
People always listened to his vision for the future of the city, she said, because he knew its beginnings better than anyone.
On the last trip Mr. Billiris and his wife took to the docks to sit by the water, they were met by some tourists who recognized him instantly.
"They looked at him and said 'You're George Billiris. We came here because of you,' " Beverley Billiris remembered. "This city never had to advertise much because he did it for them. ... He drew people here."
She said her husband's passing shouldn't mean the story ends, but that the city holds tighter to it and continues his lifelong work to share it with the world.
"He used to say 'If it gets in your blood you'll never stop,' " she said. "There was no one more full-hearted with love for this city and the industry."
Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.