VISTA — The man was sitting at a small table outside of the café.
On the table in front of him was an unopened biography of Ernest Hemingway. With close-cropped white hair and a full white beard, the man sitting at the table bore a resemblance to the photo of the late author on the book’s cover.
Tom Robertson, though, was of a slighter build than that of the pictured author known for his larger than life persona.
Retired since last year after 43 years as a school teacher at Carlsbad High School and no longer having to grade papers or go to teachers’ meetings, Robertson’s newfound freedom has since been spent traveling with his wife and volunteering.
“What I’ve been trying to do since I’ve retired, I’ve been trying to do new things that I’ve never done before in my life,” Robertson, 67, said.
That includes traveling to Key West, Fla. this week for the 34th annual Hemingway Days — a week-long celebration of the author, where Robertson will be a participant in this year’s Hemingway Look-Alike contest.
He got the idea some time ago, he said, when an in-law of his entered the contest and actually won it several years back.
Robertson, sizing up the in-law a bit, said to himself, ‘OK, I could do this.’ I look as much like Ernest Hemingway as he did, and he won the thing.”
Held at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, the three-night competition to find the best Hemingway look-alike gives Key West and Sloppy Joe’s a tremendous amount of exposure world-wide throughout the year, said Donna Edwards, brand manager at Sloppy Joe’s.
“Hemingway was friends with the original owner Joe Russell of Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, (and) there has always been a bond between the time Hemingway lived and wrote in Key West and Sloppy Joe’s,” she said.
No more than 150 contests are allowed to participate; this year there are 125 look-alike hopefuls competing. The contestants come from all over the country, Edwards said. Each year, Edwards added, they get international contestants, too, including one gentleman from Germany this time around.
This year’s event will be a little more special with July 21 marking the 115th anniversary of Hemingway’s birthday.
During the first round of the contest, each Hemingway contestant has 15 seconds to make an impression on the judges and audience, though Robertson said he doesn’t yet know how he’ll do that.
He said his wife wants him to bring a stuffed animal — a six-toed cat — with him. Hemingway was fond of that type of cat and owned several of them at his Key West house when he lived there on and off for several years.
One thing he knows, he said, is that he’ll wear a sportsman’s vest at least.
Once he found out he was entered into the competition, Robertson began going back into the author’s works.
As an English student at San Diego State University, “thousands of years ago,” he said, he took a class in Hemingway.
“I do love him. I love his writing style; love the quick, short chapters, the short sentences, the simple writing,” he said.
Though looking like the author, the similarities seem to end there.
Robertson said he was a sportsman in the traditional sense during high school playing basketball and football.
“I’m not a sportsman in the sense of what he did, with the bullfights…but as far as deep sea fishing, I’m just not into that, and big game hunting. I have been hunting, but not like what he did,” Robertson said.
“So sportsman, yes, but sportsman like Hemingway, no,” he said. “He was one of a kind, that’s for sure.”
Since he started letting others know he’s going to Key West for the contest, people have been giving him second looks, telling him he does resemble the author affectionately known as “Papa.”
And if he doesn’t win?
Robertson said he’s also been told he looks like Santa Claus — and with the holidays coming up that might just be another volunteering opportunity for him.