1986 Winner Fred Johnson

1986 Winner: Fred Johnson

Some wannabes take part in the Hemingway Look-Alike contest so they can win and fly like eagles. Fred Johnson entered it as a lark.

Born, raised, and still residing in Dade City, Florida, Fred frequently visited the Keys for its pristine diving spots.

Down for lobster diving in 1985, Fred and his wife, Jean, took refuge in Sloppy Joe’s during a rainy afternoon in August. While he studied his drink and dreamed of the lobsters--dinners-to-be--just waiting for him in the turquoise waters―Jean wandered along the memorabilia-laden walls of Hemingway’s favorite local oasis. She encountered newspaper clippings and photos of past look-alike competitions, returned to her husband and said, “You know, you could win that thing!”

“What thing?”

“The Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. You look enough like Ernest Hemingway. You ought to get into that.”

The idea caught on with Fred. He later discussed it with a friend back in Dade City. His pal lit up with a plan.

“You grow your beard, we’ll get a bunch of people together, and all of us will go down to Key West with you and have fun.”

Fred grew and nurtured his beard to Ernest standards in time for the 1986 contest. And 24 of his Dade City buddies rallied behind him as the entourage headed for the Southernmost city, 472 miles and eight hours away. The fun-loving group stayed at Duval House.

 “I got in the contest as a lark and didn’t think I had any chance of winning at all,” Fred recalled. What a thrill!

The newly crowned Papa returned the following year as a judge, thinking his new role would get old for him after a year or two. Surprise!

“I’ve been doing it for 25 years now,” he beamed, awash in both memories of the past and anticipation of making more of them in the future.

Fred devotes much time and effort to the Hemingway Look-Alike Society, which works with Sloppy Joe’s to stage the popular event and its various activities. Elected as charter president during the birth of the organization in 1997, he wrote the bylaws and mission statement. Several years later, he took over the chairmanship of the scholarship program which had been established by Bill Young in 1999.

The $1,000 awards go to writing and nursing students at Florida Keys Community College. Monies for the highly praised program come from various society fundraising activities and annual membership dues from the Papas ($40 a year) and wannabe associates ($15).

Fred, a retired physician’s assistant, applauds the geographical and professional diversity of society members.

“We’ve got people from South America and Europe. And they come from every walk of life. We’ve had federal judges in the contest, lawyers, policemen, just about any occupation you can think of.”

He cites Bill Young, a former US. Air Force pilot and real estate specialist; Jack Waterbury, an Eastern Airlines captain; real estate executive Roger Hegemier; Fred Burnham, a deputy sheriff; George Burley, a car dealership owner; Bob Anderson, MGM Studios master prop manager.

Fred’s friendship with Bob Anderson typifies the depth and importance of relationships that are part and parcel of society membership for so many Papas and wannabes. When Bob was dying of cancer, Fred journeyed to Phoenix where he brightened some of Bob’s last hours on earth.

Fred and Jean Johnson share Hemingway’s love of travel, often venturing across the continent and overseas.

“I take the membership roll,” he said, “and when I hit town, I give them a call and try to have a drink with them or lunch or dinner, and just say, “Hello.”

The man who started it all as a lark enjoys dropping in for these visits with his fellow birds of a feather that flock together in Key West every July for the fun of electing a new Papa and the pride of funding worthy projects