She reunited a lost little girl with her family on Park Point. More than 60 years later, rescuer and rescued were reunited

A teenager and a small child met by chance, then reconnected as senior citizens.

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When the little girl’s shoes were found floating in Lake Superior, her family feared the worst.

Their grief changed to joy when 15-year-old Virginia Forseth arrived carrying 4-year-old Sandra Lee Johnson, who had wandered away from a family picnic at Sky Harbor earlier that evening.

That was June 12, 1953, and Forseth — now Ginnie Fletcher — left town after graduating from Duluth Central High School two years later.

But she always wondered what became of the little girl whom she and her boyfriend came across as the skies darkened that night near the Superior entry on Minnesota Point.

Last year, with help from social media, she found out, and on May 5, 2019, the two women, accompanied by their husbands, reunited for the first time in more than 60 years, at a Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Mesa, Arizona.


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Their paths crossed the first time because of separate picnics and separate searches for firewood. (The resulting campfires are something that would be prohibited today by city ordinance.)

Forseth and her then-boyfriend, Ron Haakensen, had been on a cruise on the Chicago Queen, a local tour boat, and were dispatched to look for firewood after the group returned to Park Point for a picnic. Forseth and Haakensen, 16, both were piano students of a Mrs. Hagen, whose husband, Al Hagen, owned the Queen.

Haakensen, 83, who now lives with his wife in Ely and in a family home on the Cloquet River, said he also worked for Al Hagen.

The cruise and picnic was an annual excursion for Mrs. Hagen’s piano students, Ginnie Fletcher, 82, recalled in a telephone interview from her home in Yuma, Arizona, last week.

While she and Haakensen were on their firewood quest, Fletcher recalled: “We heard a little girl crying. And I went out to get her. Ron went back to the boat to tell the captain.”

It was getting dark, Fletcher said, and she made her way gingerly along the breakwater to get to the child. When Haakensen arrived back at the boat, meanwhile, Hagen immediately contacted the Coast Guard.


They had no way of knowing it, but the Coast Guard already had been busily searching for Sandra.

The Duluth Herald reported the next day that Lennart and Margaret Johnson and their children — Sandra was the youngest of eight — had chosen a site of their own for a picnic.

“I have memories of following my dad,” Sandra — now Sandra Brantley — said in a telephone interview from Arizona last week. (The Brantleys were just about to head back to their summer home in Duluth.) “He was picking up firewood.”

Apparently, Lennart Johnson didn’t realize Sandra was following him until he returned to the picnic site, when the Johnsons realized their youngest child was missing.

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They called for help, and for two hours, police, Coast Guardsmen and volunteers searched for the missing girl.

They didn’t find her, “but they found her shoes floating in the water,” Fletcher related.


Meanwhile, Sandra had been taken to the Chicago Queen, was wrapped in a blanket and drinking Coca-Cola that Forseth had given her. Before Forseth and Haakensen happened upon her, “she had walked about 3 miles through the rough shore country,” the Herald reported.

After the connection between the missing girl and the found girl was established, Forseth carried Sandra, still wrapped in the blanket, to reunite with her family.

It was an emotional day for the Johnson family, of course, but especially for Margaret Johnson. When she got home, the Herald reported, she learned that her brother, George J. Belt, had drowned that same day in a reservoir in Harlem, Montana. Ironically, he had been trying to save a little neighbor girl.

Forseth moved to Milwaukee after high school and later spent much of her adult life in the Portland, Oregon, area, where she worked as a professional photographer. She now lives in Yuma with her husband of 28 years, Ray Fletcher.

Yet she has never fallen out of love with Duluth. Ginnie Fletcher still has close friends in the area, including Haakensen, and has been back for visits. She talks enthusiastically about watching the ships come in and go out. Her grandfather was chief engineer on ore boats for 40 years, she said.

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“I watch every day (online) for the ships to come in and especially the pictures,” Fletcher said. “Oh, I wish I was up there photographing those boats.”


One day last year, she found a Facebook page called “ Duluth Minnesota Memories ” and decided to take a stab at reconnecting with the little girl she’d found so many years earlier.

Sandra Brantley, now 71, didn’t see it, she said, but a nephew did. He contacted Brantley’s son, who showed it to her. Her son contacted Fletcher through the Facebook page.

“And we called and talked on the phone, and it was great,” Brantley said.

When the women discovered they were both in Arizona, they arranged for that in-person get-together in Mesa. Brantley presented Fletcher with a gift: a guardian angel necklace.

“And I still wear it,” Fletcher said. “I never take it off.”

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