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A quest to see the Keys’ ‘Christ of the Deep’

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.”

That’s when the wacky story began. Hauber mentioned to Spataro that Italian dive equipment manufacturer Egidio Cressi was having another replica statue made from the mold of Italian sculptor Guido Galletti’s Il Cristo degli Abissi. Hauber thought it would be a great draw for the convention.

The first replica made headlines when it was submerged in 1954 in San Fruttuoso Bay, Italy, near where Dario Gonzatti, the first Italian to use scuba gear, died seven years earlier.

The second replica was placed under water in 1961 near St. George’s Harbor in Grenada. It was a gift of the Navy of Genoa to the locals who helped rescue the crew of an Italian vessel that was destroyed by a fire in that harbor.

While the third replica was being constructed in 1961, Spataro traveled to several countries in Europe to taste wine. He ended up in Genoa to meet with Cressi. By this time, Cressi had decided to donate a third statue to the Underwater Society of America.

“I asked him, “How are you getting it to Chicago?’ ” Spataro said. “He said: ‘That’s your problem. I’m just giving it to you.’ ”

The convention budget had no money for that, so Spataro got creative. His father knew someone who worked at a steamship line, and he was able to wangle free passage for Jesus from Genoa to Navy Pier in Chicago.

Another friend had a trucking company, and Jesus got another free ride from the pier to the Palmer House. But when the union would agree only to halve its usual charge — to $900 — to take the statue up one story to the Grand Ballroom, Spataro said he enlisted another friend, a union baggage handler for TWA.

A minister who had escaped killings in Africa and was a friend of his cousin’s wrote the litany that was read at the convention’s dedication of the statue on Aug. 18, 1962. “I wish I could find it,” Spataro said. “It said this statue was for the ones who lived and worked and played and died at sea. He really did a nice job.”

After the convention, the statue was trucked to the TWA hangar at O’Hare airport, awaiting transportation 1,500 miles away to Pennekamp State Park.

At this point, according to a 1987 article published in several diving newsletters by Eva Mills Dunlap, the first 6,000 miles of the statue’s journey from Genoa to Chicago had cost only $25 — for insurance while it was displayed at the Palmer House.

With no funds to ship it to Florida, the statue sat at the airport. Within a month or so, it was moved to the Illinois National Guard hangar because one of Spataro’s pizza customers was a captain in the Guard and was willing to take the statue in a transport plane — if a plane were to be needed to fly to Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But the missile crisis was averted. Finally, Spataro said, he got a call on a snowy December night while working a banquet that a Navy Reserve plane could take the statue but was leaving imminently. A tuxedo-clad Spataro called the National Guard captain and friends to meet him at the hangar.

Using a forklift, the group got the statue to the Navy Reserve plane. The cargo opening was about 10 feet off the ground and at an angle. Because the statue was much heavier at its base, Spataro and the captain climbed onto the crate near the head to balance the weight.

As the forklift raised the crate, the weight shifted and the statue barely caught the inside of the plane, or it would have smashed to the ground. “We almost crashed,” Spataro recalled the captain saying.

“I said: ‘Yeah, but we would have crashed with Christ.’ ”

The military plane took off for Orlando. It would take a couple more years and lots of volunteer work before the statue eventually was trucked the rest of the way to Key Largo and submerged on the ocean’s floor on Aug. 25, 1965.

By that time, Spataro said, he had no desire to see the statue again. “I got teed off at the Underwater Society of America and could care less about them,” he said.

He was angry about money. He said he had spent $80,000 on the convention, which included boats to take attendees out on the lake for “food and booze and dancing.” After the Underwater Society of America fell $5,000 short of paying all the bills, he wrote letters to all the dive organizations that belonged to the society, asking them to chip in $100 or $200 to help. None did, he said.

But years later he thought about the statue when he heard that atheists wanted to have it removed from the public park.

“It’s not a statue for religious groups,” he said. “It’s for the heart.”

The last time he saw the statue was during a snowstorm. This time, it was an 85-degree day in the subtropics. The water was warm and clear as he dove to the ocean floor, where the statue is secured in a sand channel on the southeast side of Key Largo Dry Rocks. It is surrounded by spectacular, colorful corals.

“It was really inspirational and left me with a good feeling in my heart,” Spataro said.

Thousands from around the world have come to see it by diving, snorkeling or looking through the glass bottoms of tourist boats. A few couples have gotten married beside it. And now Spataro truly appreciates the statue’s importance.

“They made me feel like a celebrity when I went down there,” Spataro said of the other divers and crew aboard the boat. “But I was happy to see people having fun and to see a 10-year-old girl make her first open water dive on it so she could get her certificate. She wanted me to sign her logbook. That made my day.”