KEY LARGO — He fixed cars, served in the Korean War, came back and fixed cars again. He later opened the Yellow Bait House, sold it and then bummed around for a while before becoming a successful Florida Keys property speculator.
But for more than eight decades, John Oliveros has had two constants in his life: He doesn’t eat vegetables and he’s always found lost treasures.
Oliveros said he didn’t get lazy until he was about 80, which was eight years ago.
“Old age is funny,” he said. “You lose all your strength. I guess that’s why they call it ‘wasting away.’”
But he hardly seems weak or lazy. In fact, he has made a name for himself as the go-to person for recovering lost jewelry from local waters.
Last July, Oliveros made headlines after using his metal detector to find a tourist’s antique ring in the waters of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. About two weeks ago, he did it again at Bahia Honda State Park.
Oliveros doesn’t attribute his active lifestyle and good health to eating vegetables — he hates them.
“I can starve to death in a vegetable patch,” he said.
He said he hates succotash, yet when the Free Press visited with him last week, he was cooking something akin to “cowboy caviar” with navy beans, homily corn and salt pork. He referred to it as an “old Conch dish” and he would know — he was born in 1929 in Key West.
“I’ve lived a good life. I consider myself one of the most fortunate people in the world,” he said.
He also joked that he never realized how good-looking he was until he got old.
“And what good is it now to know that?” he said. “What a shame.”
Oliveros started out as a Ford mechanic. He said he grew up at a time when if you didn’t know how to fix a car, you didn’t drive it. That was about 70 years ago. He later got involved in the bait business. And since about 1976, Oliveros has been in the real estate business, buying and selling 32 properties in the Keys. Last year, he flipped nine. He has also built 11 houses, the last one in 1996 in Key Largo. He said he’s thinking about not renewing his real estate license this year.
“I did good,” he admitted.
For the love of ‘junk’
Oliveros said he remembers scavenging through yards as a 6-year-old looking for anything to scrap. It’s been a life-long obsession and he’s really good at it. In the early ‘70s while at the bait shop, Oliveros started selling metal detectors and soon found himself using one during his free time to search for coins and jewelry at the Whale Harbor sandbar and other popular gathering spots.
He said 90 percent of his finds are pennies, followed by dimes, quarters and nickels. Three months ago, he sold 50 pounds of wheat pennies that he had amassed over the years. Before that, he sold more than 400 buffalo nickels.
Last year, Oliveros, known by many for his skills with a metal detector, was asked to search the waters at Pennekamp for an heirloom diamond ring that a tourist from Denver had lost. Just hours before Susan and James Anstey were to head to the mainland to catch a flight back to Colorado, Oliveros arrived at the park, searched the water for 30 minutes and pulled the ring out to cheers of the crowd that had gathered.
Earlier this month, Abigail and Ben Malone were visiting the Keys from Knoxville. The couple had saved their visit to Bahia Honda for last. It was after 2 p.m., when Ben Malone, who had been snorkeling, surfaced with a look of panic.
Abigail said she knew immediately that he lost his ring. The water was “clear as a bell,” but the bottom was very silty. They tried to find the ring with no success. About 10 onlookers also pitched in, but after an hour of searching, there was still no ring. The park closes at 6 p.m., so they were up against time.
As luck would have it, a park ranger stopped by and told the couple to call her office and track down Oliveros. Abigail made the frantic phone call and Oliveros answered. He said he could come to the park in the morning, but Abigail explained that she and her husband were leaving in the morning. Oliveros said he’d be there as soon as possible. Considering he was about two hours away, Abigail said she didn’t get her hopes up.
With the sun arcing closer to the horizon and Ben awaiting in the parking lot, Oliveros finally arrived, and 15 minutes after entering the water, he found the ring. The elated couple offered Oliveros money, which he refused.
“For someone to do that for me, and he doesn’t know me from Adam, it’s just amazing,” Abigail Malone said. “He’s an incredible man.”
Oliveros still likes to look for things.