Several months ago, in late February, Larry Knorr, the publisher of Sunbury Press, forwarded an email to me from Lance Goerner, the one and only son of Fred. “To the folks at SUNBURY PRESS, my name is Lance Goerner,” the message started. “I am the son of Fred Goerner the author of “The Search For Amelia Earhart.” I would like to get in contact with Mr. Mike Campbell. . . . I have some info that he would find very interesting. I am enjoying reading his book. AMELIA EARHART The Truth At Last.”
I didn’t even know Fred had a son before Lance contacted Sunbury. Since then we’ve had several cordial phone conversations covering many topics, including Lance’s childhood, spent almost entirely without his father. Lance said Fred actually told him he would be too busy becoming famous with the Amelia Earhart story to pay much attention to him. His father was dead serious, and basically abandoned the boy when he divorced Lance’s mother, Claire, in 1966, when Lance was 8.
This was occurring just as Fred’s 1966 classic The Search for Amelia Earhart, the only Earhart disappearance book ever to attain bestseller status, was published and briefly launched Fred into a national celebrity. “As a kid I remember seeing him only two or three times,” Lance said, adding that when he got a bit older, he saw his father about six hours a year.
A few things things Lance told me about his father are best left out of this post. Suffice to say, although Fred Goerner was undoubtedly the greatest Earhart researcher ever, he was no saint in his day-to-day life, according to Lance and a few others with knowledge I’ve talked to. But if Lance, who was basically abandoned by his father at a very young age, is still carrying any serious baggage or bitterness toward Fred, who died of cancer in 1994 at age 69, it hasn’t been evident in the several conversations we’ve had about him.
On May 22, I was astounded when I opened up a FedEx package to behold Fred Goerner’s high school letter sweater, from Beverly Hills High School, with the symbols of four sports — tennis, football, baseball and basketball — embroidered on the B, and “Fred” woven into the left pocket. “Here is a little something for keeping the good fight,” Lance wrote on an amusing card that accompanied the sweater. Neither he nor his mother know much about Fred’s high school athletic exploits, but Lance says his father’s best sport was tennis, and that he was good enough to have had a future as a pro.
He also remembers hearing that his father received a letter from the iconic Amos Alonzo Stagg, an American sports legend who coached football at the College of the Pacific from 1933 to 1946, was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach, and was among the first group of inductees to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Lance says Fred didn’t graduate from high school in the normal way, instead choosing to join the Seabees in 1942 at the age of 17. After the war, he attended University of California Santa Barbara, sometime early in his college days broke his leg, which prevented him from participating in any college athletics, was later involved in the school’s theater program, and graduated, year unknown, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, at least that’s Lance’s best guess. Believe it or not, there’s no Wikipedia entry on Fred Goerner, and an Internet search reveals little about his biography except the bare bones contained in his New York Times obituary.
Now 55 and never married (“I never found the right one”), Lance Goerner is quite a character in his own right. He’s a talented musician from a long line of distinguished performers on his father’s side. Lance reports that Fred was the only one of his ancestors who wasn’t touched by the musical gene. For example, Fred’s father was also named Fred Goerner, and was the “principle cello player with the New York and Pittsburgh Philarmonic orchestras,” Lance said in an email, adding that his grandfather was also “first call cello in LA during the 1930s and ’40s, recording with most major artists of the day [including Frank] Sinatra, Harry James and Artie Shaw’s Starlight Orchestra of 1939.”
Lance, a gifted trumpet player who spent eight years in Beijing playing with various jazz bands, finally had to return to the states when the filthy air of the unregulated Chinese industrial state threatened his health. He’s performed with such greats as Ray Charles and Lenny Williams, as well as well-known groups including the The Chi-Lites and The Dramatics. Lance is currently living with his mother at their Santa Barbara home, watching over her in her golden years.
Although we’ve known each other just a brief time and have only spoken via Skype and the phone, I already consider Lance a good friend, and will always treasure Fred Goerner’s high school letter sweater.
Well that is a stroke of good fortune for you Mike.
What a great gift, Mike. I am sure you will treasure it and find a suitable means of displaying it. Lance must be quite a man to harbor no animosity toward his father and to think of you when it came time to pass on this memento. I hope your friendship with him continues and grows.
This is a remarkable and unique story, Mike – obviously you have a closeness to Fred G – through his writings and research and yours – that is recognized by his own son. What a wonderful approbation! Congrats! (Fred likely has a smile on his face ….)