The U.S. Coast Guard found an empty boat washed up onshore in the morning mist at Perkins Beach in Lakewood.
Waves battered the 14-foot vessel, which was out of gas after drifting overnight in a Lake Erie storm. The outboard motor’s propeller was bent and the hull was scraped as if the boat had hit a submerged rock.
Two life jackets and fishing tackle were scattered on the wet floor. One oar was locked in place. The other was gone.
There was no sign of the Akron fisherman who had rented the boat a day earlier in Rocky River. Rescuers scoured the lake, but hope quickly faded. No one could survive 24 hours in the rough water without a life jacket, experts said.
Cookware salesman Lawrence J. Bader, 30, had told his pregnant wife he was going fishing on May 15, 1957, and wouldn’t be home until late. Despite storm warnings and choppy waves, Bader loaded his gear into a livery boat about 4:30 p.m. and puttered upriver into the unknown.
The Coast Guard did not find a body, although that wasn’t uncommon. Drowning victims could disappear without a trace in the big lake.
Bader’s tragic loss devastated his family and sent shock waves through Akron.
Married since 1952, he and his wife, Mary Lou, were the parents of three children — ages 2, 3 and 4 — and lived in a nice home on Goodhue Drive. They were expecting their fourth child in September.
Born in 1926 to Dr. Stephen and Charlotte Bader, Larry Bader attended St. Sebastian School and St. Vincent High School, entered the U.S. Navy in 1944 during World War II and graduated from Buchtel High School in 1946 after returning from the service.
Investigators found no evidence of foul play in Bader’s disappearance. However, financial reports did raise some concerns. Bader earned about $10,000 a year as a salesman but hadn’t filed any tax returns since 1951. He had taken out about $40,000 in life insurance policies and had a $17,000 mortgage on his home.
Summit County Probate Court declared Bader legally dead in 1960, and that would have been the end of the story if it hadn’t been for a chance encounter five years later.
In February 1965, a Bader family friend saw a ghost.
The anonymous buddy was at a sports show in Chicago when he halted at an archery booth. He saw a bowman who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Bader, except that this man had a black patch over one eye and wore a mustache.
When asked about his identity, the booth exhibitor denied being Bader. He said he was television personality John “Fritz” Johnson of Omaha, Neb.
The friend called Richard and John Bader in Akron and explained that their dead brother had a look-alike in Chicago. He persuaded Johnson to speak on the phone, and the Bader brothers listened intently as the gentleman on the other end of the line denied knowing anyone from Akron.
The brothers booked a flight to Chicago. It wasn’t just the voice that intrigued them. Larry Bader was an avid archer.
When Johnson met the Bader brothers, he showed no hint of recognition. He was polite, answered all their questions and even volunteered to take a fingerprint test to prove his identity. There was no doubt in their minds, however, that he was their lost sibling.
“It’s the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Richard Bader said afterward. “I don’t know what to say.”
“We feel the poor man has a real case of illness or some kind of mental block,” John Bader said.
Fritz Johnson told a different tale of his upbringing. He said he was one of 22 babies left on doorsteps in Boston in 1930 and raised at an orphanage in Brookline, Mass. He said he joined the Navy in 1943 and was discharged from the service in February 1957.
Johnson arrived in Omaha only five days after Bader disappeared. He worked two years as a bartender before landing a job in 1959 as an announcer at KBON radio. As a publicity stunt, he sat on a flagpole for a month to raise money for polio.
In 1962, he married his wife, Nancy, a divorcee, and adopted her daughter. The couple soon welcomed a son.
Affable and charming, Johnson became a celebrity in Omaha, joining KETV in 1963 as an announcer for news, sports, weather and commercials. He announced pro wrestling matches and was promoted to sports director at the TV station. As an expert archer, he won 13 titles in Nebraska.
In March 1964, he lost his right eye to cancer and began to wear a black patch.
Johnson seemed baffled in 1965 when the FBI confirmed that his fingerprints were “definitely identical” to Bader’s. “I was sure the fingerprint check would clear me,” Johnson told a reporter. “Wouldn’t I be out of my mind to agree to the check if I knew I was Bader?”
The strange case made national news. Doctors debated whether he truly suffered from amnesia or “a deep-seated psychiatric problem,” or if the tumor that robbed him of his eye could have stolen his memory.
Mary Lou Bader was shocked to learn that she no longer was a widow.
“It was something very unreal,” she said. “It was sort of like a numbness. It wasn’t an emptiness like I felt when I thought he was drowned.”
Meanwhile, Nancy Johnson didn’t care to comment about her husband’s case. “I just don’t know what to think,” she said.
Johnson’s life quickly unraveled. The TV station fired him. His wife annulled their marriage. He moved into a room at the Omaha YMCA and got his old job back as a bartender.
Johnson earned $100 a week, and paid $50 weekly to support his Akron children and $20 weekly for his Omaha children.
In August 1965, Mary Lou Bader drove her four kids to Chicago. They picked up a total stranger — Fritz Johnson — at Union Station and had a two-day family reunion.
“He looked the same to me as when he disappeared except for his mustache and eye patch,” she said.
She said Johnson was “just wonderful with all of us.” He treated the children like he had known them all their lives.
“I am hopeful he will eventually remember,” she said. “He’s convinced himself that he doesn’t recognize anybody.”
The next month, Beacon Journal reporter John de Groot interviewed Johnson in Omaha.
“My God, don’t you understand?” Johnson said. “All of a sudden, I find out that 30 years of my life never happened. You see, I really do have 30 years of memory as Fritz Johnson. What am I supposed to do with those 30 years? Throw them out the door?”
Referring to Bader as “that other fellow,” Johnson said he thought about visiting Akron, but didn’t want to live in Ohio.
“I think people would keep testing me,” he said. “They’d always be asking me questions to see what I might remember. And then — I don’t know — I’m afraid I’d be some kind of freak back there.”
He said he hoped that God might solve the problem, but “I don’t see how this mess can have a happy ending.”
When Johnson fell ill with stomach pains in May 1966, doctors diagnosed liver cancer. His health rapidly deteriorated and he had to be hospitalized.
Lawrence J. Bader and John “Fritz” Johnson, both 39, died Sept. 16, 1966.
A memorial service for Johnson was held in Omaha. The body was returned to Akron for burial in a Bader family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery.
“It’s all over now,” the Beacon Journal reported. “There is no tomorrow for the man who claimed to recall no past. All that remains is the mystery.”
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a new book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to email@example.com.