It was a reunion 51 years in the making.
When Korean War veteran Gabe Spataro was relearning how to scuba dive, he told his instructors a riveting tale about his wheeler-dealer role in an effort half a century ago to bring the now-famous “Christ of the Deep” underwater statue to the United States from Italy.
Spataro, 80 and legally blind from macular degeneration, described his wine-tasting trip to Europe, his father’s connection with an Italian steamship line, his coordination of the Underwater Society of America’s third national convention and his dilemma: how to get the 1,100-pound bronze statue of Jesus up one floor to the Grand Ballroom of the Palmer House in Chicago without paying the house union to do the work.
“It was a wacky story,” said Jim Elliott, president and founder of the Chicago-based nonprofit group Diveheart, which teaches children, adults and veterans with disabilities how to dive.
So wacky, Elliott said, that he didn’t believe it until Spataro produced 1962 photographs of himself as a young man standing next to the Christ statue. In some, he was dressed in a trench coat while the statue was in a crate on Chicago’s Navy Pier. In others, he was sporting a tuxedo and Hawaiian lei while the statue was displayed in the Grand Ballroom as the convention’s guest of honor.
“Oh my God, this guy is for real,” Elliott said after seeing the pictures.
Spataro, who began diving in 1956 during the sport’s pioneering days, also told Elliott another surprising tidbit: He had never made the trip to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park to see the statue in its permanent home.
That changed two weeks ago, when two diving buddies working with Diveheart helped Spataro make the 25-foot descent to meet Christ again.
Spataro couldn’t see the statue while looking straight at it because of his eye disease, whose onset was about three years ago. But he could see it through the side of his mask with his peripheral vision.
“Christ of the Deep” was in the familiar pose — hands raised and head looking up at heaven, offering a blessing of peace. But almost five decades of marine growth had changed the statue’s once-shiny bronze appearance.
“It looked a little messed up,” Spataro said. “I brushed his hair. . . . We were buddies.”
Divers are told not to touch the statue because it is now covered with fire coral, which can cause stinging and burning pain. But Spataro said he wore gloves to touch it again.
Spataro’s passion for diving began a year after he returned from Chuncheon, Korea, where he served as an Army supply sergeant in a helicopter battalion. He was working at the family pizzeria when two customers told him about their plans to go scuba diving. He decided to try it the next day.
He was given fins, a weight belt, a mask and snorkel and an air tank to wear on his back. “The one instruction: Don’t stop breathing,” Spataro recalled.
Despite having to surface quickly because no one told him he needed to turn on the valve to the air tank, he fell in love with swimming with the fish and other marine life of Lake Geneva.
Soon, a new group called the Illinois Console of Skin and SCUBA Divers was meeting at the pizzeria. In 1960, their president, Carl Hauber, also was slated to become president of the Underwater Society of America. Spataro says Hauber named him to head the society’s 1962 convention because “I was in the restaurant business and knew how to throw parties.”