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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Outdoor Writer Don Johnson Enters Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame

Whenever recalling the late, great outdoor writer Don L. Johnson of Milwaukee Sentinel fame, I think of a line from Mark Twain’s “watermelon speech” of 1907:“I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

No one could tell better campfire, dinnertime and deer-shack stories thanJohnson. And when a story included a punch line that made his audience roar, Johnson laughed with them, loudly and heartily, eyes squinting joy.

When the laughter ceased and you praised Johnson’s story, whether spoken or written, he accepted your compliment modestly. He’d claim he was just in the right place at the right time.

Which was buck pellets. Coincidence had nothing to do with it. Johnson’s stories were all about about his work ethic, curiosity and devotion to craft. He loved hunting and fishing, hunters and anglers, and the natural resources that make outdoor recreation so vital to Wisconsin life.

Johnson, 1927-2006, of Menomonie, spent over 40 years covering our outdoor scene, first for the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram and then from 1962 to 1984 for the Sentinel. He was a dedicated journalist who tackled public-policy complexities, whether they concerned wildlife management, ecosystem preservation or environmental pollution.

And even though Johnson never expected anything more than a paycheck for his work, he’s getting enshrined April 13 into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in Stevens Point. The honor is well deserved; maybe overdue. His longtime service advanced the work and missions of countless organizations and conservationists, including many who preceded him into our unique Hall of Fame.

That won’t be Johnson’s first such honor, of course. In 1991 he was inducted into the Milwaukee Press Club’s Media Hall of Fame, and in 2001 he entered the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Sports Show Hall of Fame. His work was also honored by the Associated Press, United Press International, Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Audubon Society, Ruffed Grouse Society, and the Wisconsin and Arkansas Wildlife Federations, to name a few.

Unlike many folks, including some outdoor writers, Johnson knew that hunting, fishing and trapping aren’t simply hobbies or recreation. One doesn’t just grab a rifle or shotgun and expect deer or ducks to leap up or fly about for our entertainment. This isn’t golf, y’know.

No, Johnson was a dedicated outdoorsman, gun-dog enthusiast, and all-around supporter of public education in the outdoors. He promoted marksmanship and wingshooting, and conducted clinics and workshops to share his advice and expertise. He even helped design Wisconsin’s first hunter-education/safety program.

As a result, Johnson’s articles and columns reminded readers that outdoors fun requires environmental protection and science-based conservation. That’s why he was often the first to report on pesticide contamination in birds, mercury pollution in the Wisconsin River, and lead-poisoning in ducks and geese. Johnson’s reporting helped justify laws that banned DDT and outlawed lead shot for waterfowl hunting.

Johnson even conducted his own laborious audit of Wisconsin’s deer-registration system, ultimately disputing hunters’ claims that the state inflates these body counts. Hunters today somehow forget that folks doubted the Department of Natural Resources’ deer-registration numbers long before we registered deer remotely with smartphones. Neither metal tags nor certified clerks ever silenced doubters past.

If Johnson were alive and still reporting, he would likely audit every deer-management system in North America to see if anything could satisfy conspiracy theorists. He was thorough and attentive, forever toting a pencil in one hand and reporters’ notebook in the other.

Relentless, science-based reporting was just who he was.Johnson earned journalism and biology degrees in 1951 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he continued his work as a freelancer long after “retiring” from the Sentinel. Shortly before his death, he also took time to organize his nature essays from the Sentineland publish them in his 2005 book, “Summer’s Song and Other Essays.”

Johnson’s essays demonstrate his breadth as a writer. As a journalist, he wrote tightly. As an essayist, he wrote tighter yet. Consider these lines from his essay “Summer Song,” which he wrote in July 1968:

“Summer is humming her sleepy tune again. The lazy bumbling of bees in golden sweet clover and purple vetch. The whispering rustle of dragonfly wings. …

“Summer, recall those old tunes for us again. We each have our own lyrics. Just hum to me while I remember mine.”

And, of course, it’s hard to read Johnson’s work without envying his skills. Consider this sample of his October 1963 essay “The Old Shack”:

“Men seldom speak of why they come to places like this. We assure each other that we come to hunt ducks; that we dragged the canoe across beaver dams and fallen trees and slogged through clinging mud just to bag a few birds. But that is only part of it. … A sign I once saw over the door of another cabin in the woods said ‘The Clinic.’ Anyone who has felt the therapy of such a hideaway knows how appropriate that is.”

Unfortunately, all good stories must end and their tellers fall silent. Johnson’s voice grew steadily weaker through his 70s as he battled Parkinson’s disease, and then his doctors found a cancer that defied their help.

Johnson assessed the diagnosis and reported the net meaning to those who asked: “I knew Parkinson’s would get me eventually, but cancer will do it faster,” he said when we last spoke in spring 2005.

Folks like Don Johnson make one grateful for the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame. Without it, we would too easily lose trace of our giants, no matter how unique their current work and presence.

Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame to Induct 3

STEVENS POINT – The Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame will expand its membership to 99 by adding three inductees April 13 at the Sentry Theater.

This year’s inductees are …

-- Scott Craven, 71, a well-known UW-Madison wildlife professor who advanced the public’s understanding and appreciation of state wildlife and natural resources through 4-H leadership, the UW-Extension, Wisconsin Public Radio programs, and projects promoting hunter education and land stewardship.

-- Don L. Johnson, 1927-2006, a popular newspaper columnist for the Milwaukee Sentinel who enlightened readers about Wisconsin’s great outdoors for over 40 years. Johnson encouraged readers to get involved in conservation and environmental issues affecting the state’s forests, wildlife, waterways and parklands.

-- Aroline Schmitt, 1904-1995,a pioneering woman and citizen-conservationist who worked in a man’s world from 1930 to the 1960s to advance sustainable forestry and promote fledgling conservation organizations and initiatives across the state and nation.

WCHF president Michael John Jaeger said the inductees reflect Wisconsin’s diverse legacy of conservation. “These additions to the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame recognize 99 men and women who dedicated their lives to advancing Wisconsin’s conservation legacy,” Jaeger said. “Through their personal and professional efforts, dedication and love for nature, they changed the world.”

The induction ceremony begins at 2 p.m., April 13, with a reception preceding at 12:30 p.m. A luncheon follows at 4:30 p.m. at the nearby Atrium. The ceremony and reception are free and open to the public.

Lunch reservations cost $25 per person, and can be made online at, or call(715) 346-4992.

Below, from left: Don L. Johnson, 1927-2006; Aroline Schmitt, 1904-1995; Scott Craven, 71.

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