1988 Winner: Tom Cosselman
Just when an intriguing mystery would thicken the plot, along comes our hero, Tom Cosselman, riding to the rescue like a Tonto-deprived Lone Ranger. Actually , sailing to the rescue would be more likely for the man whose life and legacy provide scant details.
The combined investigative expertise of Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, and Boston Blacky would have encountered stubborn resistance in solving the case of―drum roll, please―The Mystery of the Missing Papa.
Even Michael Whalton, the “Founding Father of all Papas,” remains puzzled about Tom’s past and present status.
“He lived on a sailboat,” said Michael, who, as Sloppy Joe’s manager and instigator of the annual look-alike madness, was on the scene when Cosselman won.
“He kind of drifted in and out for a couple years. The last time he sailed out, it was in the middle of the night.”
Enter Sherlock, Sam, and Boston.
The trio uncovered a 1988 news story identifying Tom as “a retired plumbing contractor from Horton Bay, Michigan.”
Aha! Horton Bay. Michigan. The Michigan Mafia! Now we’re getting somewhere.
The newly unearthed document, yellowed with age, quoted Tom as claiming, “The competition was pretty tough. All the fellows competing against me looked real good. It’s quite a feeling to be standing there with a bunch of people who look just like you do.”
So what were his plans after snatching victory from the defeated jaws of 51 other wannabes?
“I feel a little bit more like Hemingway now, and I think I’ll go out and do a bit of fishing.”
Some called Tom a sinner, some a scammer; scarcely a soul dubbed him a saint. But it sounds as though Tom had a good time partying while parlaying his triumph before departing for unknown dark waters.
“He looked good, but he was, oh…” Michael offers in what was to be faint praise before pausing poignantly and adding another slice of suspicion.
“Well, the look-alikes will tell you that he was probably the last one to win on his first try.”
When the Holmes-Spade-Blacky gumshoe gurus pressed for more details and pondered adding Charlie Chan to boost the global search, Michael retreated a bit and concluded, “What happened is that he didn’t live up to their expectations.”
Dissecting fact from fiction in Key West is more of a lost cause than raising the titanic…with all survivors and ship intact. But there are stories afloat about a supposedly lavish barbecue that Tom promised look-alike entrants when he returned for a second year. Buy your tickets now. Only $20.
Disgruntled Papas and wannabes went searching for his scalp the next morning after the supposed grandiose luau reportedly turned out to be only paper plates of franks and beans. Too late. The mystic mariner had rigged his sails in the wee hours and slid off in silence from the port of Key West never to be seen, or heard from, again.
Whether true or not, it’s a wonderful tale worthy of inclusion in the bizarre biography of the Conch Republic.
“He’s long gone,” says Trapper John Petersen, the 1994 champ. “I haven’t seen or heard from him in years and years and years.” And Trapper John’s not alone. Neither has anyone else heard from the wayfaring stranger who wandered into the Hemingway Look-Alike Contest.
One trait about Tom Cosselman that goes unchallenged is that he bore a remarkable resemblance to the man that he and other look-alikes strived so hard to look like.
“He just walked into the bar,” remembers Fred Burnhan, the Papa winner two years later. “He was living on a 28-foot sailboat anchored in the harbor. When I saw him, I said, “there’s the winner!”
Michael is the first to admit that Tom Cosselman was the real thing as far as appearance was concerned. “He was shorter than Ernest Hemingway, maybe 5- foot- 8 or 5-foot-9 in height.”
But what exactly did Tom Cosselman look like?
“He looks like Ernest Hemingway,” answers Michael.