1990 Winner Fred Burnham

1990 Winner: Fred Burnham

Reacting to a challenge from his wife, Fred Burnham of Sarasota, Florida, first entered the Hemingway Look-Alike Contest in 1988. “I went down with a friend who was in the contest. It was just my second time in Key West. I didn’t even have a beard, but I got caught up in the whole Hemingway thing and entered that year,” Fred said.
“The late Bob Anderson always said that we were the Class of ’88 because I started with him and George Burley. Bob’s wife, Freda, has always been one of my favorites. ”
In recollection of his fateful Hemingway beginnings, Fred told his story.
“My wife, Jo Ellen, gave me the idea to enter and made it kind of a dare. I accepted. It was a $15 entry fee, and they gave us a T-shirt. I couldn’t pass it up. Of course, I didn’t get anywhere, but I met some of the guys who continue to go every year―people like Fred Johnson and his wife who visit us when they come through the Sarasota area.”
Fred terms it “a truly special society” that spawns special relationships.
“The friendships you develop over the years as you discover everyone’s idiosyncrasies make me respect the guys so much. It’s just a blast to see them every year and find out what’s new in their lives.”
Born in Michigan City, Indiana, on September 1, 1941, Fred worked as a lineman for the local utility company. When he retired from that job, Fred and family relocated to Sarasota. He worked as a deckhand on vessels that hauled phosphate from Tampa to Houston and then picked up coal in Louisiana.
“Very tough and exhausting work,” Fred said, “but at least I was on the sea.”
And then for several years, Fred was a deputy sheriff with the Sarasota county Sheriff’s Department.
He admits he wasn’t a Hemingway fan early on, perhaps turned off by “required reading” in high school.
“But after I became more involved with the society, I took notes on how the man lived and got into the experience.”
Fred’s favorite Papa novel is The Old Man and the Sea.
“It’s a great one. You can just put yourself in the old man’s shoes.”
Fred recalls battling his anxiety the day of the contest while clad in a Hemingway-style, turtleneck sweater. He broiled in the hot July sun on the street outside Sloppy Joe’s in wait of the judges’ decision.
Out on the street was the unofficial meeting place for all the wannabes. Every year that I wore my sweater, I looked pretty good to start off, but by the end of the evening, the sweater was down around my knees, soaking wet.”
As the temperature rose, Fred’s confidence level fell. He had only to gaze at the white-bearded battalion mingling on the sidewalk and street outside Sloppy Joe’s.
“The nervousness was still there for me,” he recalled. “I had a tendency to discount myself because I thought some of the other guys were better. I really was shocked and happily surprised when I won that year.”
Fred won in only his third attempt, but advised those who enter not to expect to win in their first year or two.
“That’s part of the dues you have to pay,” he said. “It’s doubtful that anyone would win in their first attempt since we now have some 150 contestants. But you can’t win if you don’t enter, and those who want in the contest should get their entry form in early. You can get those forms right off Sloppy Joe’s web site.”
The Hemingway Look-Alike Society provides a potent blend of good times and goodwill, Fred maintains.
It’s a great organization, and we pride ourselves on having fun. But it’s not all beer drinking and eating. We’re actually doing some things like the scholarship program for Lower Keys’ students. Bill Young set it up, and it’s been a huge success.”
Fred and Jo Ellen make their annual pilgrimage to the Conch Republic, where Fred serves as a judge helping decide the fate of wannabe Papas.
“We plan our vacation around it and stay at the Cypress house. They treat us royally. It’s a great marriage,” he said, referring not only to the Cypress House and the Hemingway crowd, but his relationship with the woman who dared him to enter the contest.
1990 Papa’s Mama, Jo Ellen, prodded her man into the experience of his lifetime, one he relives every year when he sits down with fellow judges to choose the next look-alike champion. Fred and JoEllen retired to Mexico in September of 2009 and are happily diving, painting, and doing NOTHING!