Photo: Michael HeapeMeet Florida "Icon" George Billiris
An Interview with George Billiris
Sponge industrialist, Tarpon Springs; age 89
George Billiris was 14 the first time he went to work, diving for sponges off the coast of Tarpon Springs. Now 89, Billiris runs a sponge distribution business from a small office along the city's sponge docks. He spoke to Florida Trend about his life, career, Tarpon Springs — and his desire to dive for sponges one last time. Here are excerpts of his conversation.
My mother was big on education, but I’d go sponging every summer. At 14 years old, I was making as much money as the local bank president — not only me, but all the divers. In the winter, I’d go to school.
The reason I’m in Tarpon Springs is because my grandfather was invited to help develop the sponge industry here. Greece had a sponge industry and was the only country in the world that had sponge divers. It was right around 1900. They found an abundance of sponge here, and immediately the migration started. The industry went from nothing, no boats, to 180 boats, and Tarpon Springs became the sponge capital of the world.
You want success? Help other people be successful. You only get what you give.
If you take a look at the history of the natural sponge, you’ll see it goes back thousands of years. Cleopatra would use a natural sponge when she bathed in goat’s milk. You’ll find a natural sponge in King Tut’s grave, embalmed, because it is an animal. And also, when Christ was crucified and he asked for water, they gave him vinegar from a sponge.
Without a sense of humor, you’re out of luck. There’s a bright side to all of it, regardless of how bad it really is.
In today’s world, you have about 1,400 commercial uses for natural sponge. Anything that has to do with the cleansing or the smoothing of an object in the commercial world, they use a natural sponge. The demand for the natural sponge on the world market is 12 times greater than the supply. The problem is lack of supply. The natural sponge does a better job than the synthetic sponge, but, today, in my eyes, the synthetic sponge is a necessary evil.
My father’s words to me were: ‘Work is like medicine. It cures everything.’
I believe I have an advantage over someone who is not multi-cultural because I’m enjoying both cultures.
Tourism has become very important to Tarpon Springs. The youngsters have 102 gift shops and I think 25 restaurants down here now. They’ll do very well, but what they must not forget and what they must build on is the Greek culture and the sponge industry.
I remember going to school and playing football, of course, and I remember the guy on the PA system. We were playing Clearwater High and he named all the players, you know, and when he got to Tarpon Springs, everyone was Greek, or 95% to 99% of us, so he could hardly pronounce our names. But we had a quarterback out of Palm Harbor and his name was Smith. The announcer was like, ‘Oh my God we have a Smith!’ — a name he could finally pronounce.
Let’s don’t act like something. Let’s be something.
The people who came here from Greece came here without money, without knowing the language, without anything, and yet they developed a great industry and made us what we are today.
Every kid has their little cell phone or their little iPads or e-pads or whatever you call them. We’re going into a totally computerized world, which is good and not good. We’re losing the basic fundamentals of life, and we don’t even see it.
We had the BP spill not long ago. That wiped out the sponges in deep water and north Florida, so now the boats are working inshore.
The populace of America is from all over the world. Because you’ve been here two generations longer than the next guy doesn’t make you a better American. It doesn’t make you a better citizen. You cannot, and must not, and should not take a paintbrush and just say, ‘no more Muslims, no more Greeks, no more this, no more that.’
A sponge diver is the type of person who is not afraid.
My father’s generation, they lived the law of common sense. They didn’t learn anything from books. They learned from living, and that’s the way we learned. There were sayings for everything, like: ‘Don’t wait until you’re hungry to cook.’
Unfortunately, Florida is moving away from its primary resources, which are fisheries and citrus.
I plan to go out this summer for the last time and make one more dive. I’ll probably work anywhere from 30- to 40-feet deep, west-northwest of here. It used to be my favorite spot, the place where I got started. I miss it.
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