In the traditional sense, Bob Fluetsch was a miserable failure as an educator.

When the Vader school superintendent disappeared in 1979, he stole $500 of the district's money, faked his own death and took off to, he hoped, start a new life with a new name in a new country.

For someone in a position of authority and respect, that was a poor example to the young people who then sat in Vader's classrooms.

Now, Fluetsch is back in Lewis County, sitting in jail and serving as a living illustration of a lesson Joe Louis taught Billy Conn in a boxing ring more than 60 years ago: "You can run, but you can't hide."

It's yet another odd twist in a strange news story I helped cover back in 1979 and 1980, so long ago that Jimmy Carter was president, Dixy Lee Ray was governor and Bob Fluetsch was a relatively young man with a bright future.

Fluetsch had come to Vader from Pacific County's Willapa Valley School District, where he had worked as a principal. He could have built himself a nice career in Vader, or he could have used that job as a springboard to a position in a larger district.

Instead, Fluetsch opted to become a thief and a deceiver — and, as it turns out, an ineffective one.

Until the other day, I hadn't thought about Fluetsch in years, but I hadn't forgotten the basic details of his story.

I hadn't forgotten how searchers worked themselves to exhaustion after Fluetsch vanished.

I hadn't forgotten the grief that gripped Vader after his motorcycle turned up alongside the Cowlitz River, leading people to believe he had drowned in its currents.

I hadn't forgotten how that emotion had turned to shock and dismay after Fluetsch was arrested in San Francisco, where he had been working in a sandwich shop, and where he had attempted to obtain a passport through fraudulent means.

Certainly, I hadn't forgotten how Fluetsch looked and sounded — remorseful and ashamed — during his first court appearance in what is now the Lewis County Law and Justice Center.

And I hadn't forgotten how I wasn't too surprised when word came that Fluetsch, who had moved to Idaho while still on probation for the $500 misappropriation, had flown the coop again. If he was foolish enough to do it once, why would anyone have believed he wouldn't try it a second time?

I couldn't help but feel a strange sense of déjá vu when Fluetsch surfaced again last week.

Under deadline pressure, Chronicle reporters Jennifer Latson and Dian McClurg did an excellent job of updating readers about the past 20-plus years in the life of Bob Fluetsch, culminating in his arrest in Tennessee (where, once again, he was traveling under a false name), and in his Lewis County court appearance, in the very same Law and Justice building.

Years ago, I wrote similar stories. This time, I assigned them to reporters who, until that day, had never heard of Fluetsch.

I was struck by the photos of Fluetsch. He looked older, to be sure, but his half-smiling, half-embarrassed expression was the same.

It may not have been his intent, but Fluetsch's words in court provided another lesson: Being a fugitive does not pay.

He has no job, little money and a lot of debt, Fluetsch told Judge David Draper. He could not afford an attorney, so the taxpayers will finance his legal representation.

If Fluetsch is convicted of probation violation, he won't have to worry about expenses for the eight months he may be in jail.

Eventually, in a legal sense, Fluetsch might be free. More doubtful is whether he'll ever outrun whatever demons prompted him to flee in the first place.

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