Have a question about the history of Menomonie, Dunn County and Wisconsin? We are heartbroken to report that the ultimate go-to guy with all the answers is no longer with us. On Thursday morning, John Russell took his leave of the hometown for which he had such a passion and to which he gave so much during his 93 years of adventurous living.
His obituary on page A2 of today’s paper shares many of the details of the man recently lauded by his alma mater, University of Wisconsin in Madison, as a true “Renaissance Man.” And indeed a plethora of titles follow the name of John Russell: photographer, author, artists, playwright, illustrator, columnist, amateur thespian and tour guide. Many of the Facebook posts commenting on the news of John’s demise share happy memories of when he took their class pictures, high school senior photos and weddings.
What we want to share here are a few of the stories that come to mind when we reflect on our acquaintance with, as Dunn County Historical Society and Rassbach Heritage Museum director Frank Smoot, describes as “both funny and dapper. I don’t know that anyone my age or younger even aspires to be dashing like that anymore.”
It wasn’t long after I joined the Dunn County News as a reporter in 1999 that editor Jim Kleinhans turned over the editing and layout of the Sunday edition’s history page to me. And so began an acquaintance with John that blossomed into a fine and fond friendship. Each week, he’d bring in his Scenes of Yesteryear column and photo. We’d chat about the week’s story, what was going on in our lives and around town.
A couple of weeks later after John’s weekly visit, Kleinhans rolled his desk chair up next to mine, leaned in and declared, “You know, John Russell’s not going to live forever. I want you to interview him and get his story.”
Delighted by the assignment, I called John and set up a time to meet at his studio on Tainter Lake.
Mini-cassette recorder in hand, we sat down and started talking. Nearly three hours later, we’d made it through John’s childhood growing up in Menomonie as the son of the city correspondent for the Eau Claire Leader and had just barely scratched the surface of his World War II tales in the Pacific theater as a photographer in the Navy.
“I have to get home to feed my fellas, John. I think we’ll have to set up a time to finish our interview,” I said. As I recall, it took two meetings to make it to present day — and a seven-part series — to do even marginal justice to the fascinating life of the man I dubbed “The Anomaly from Menomonie” after he proudly told me he had never smoked a cigarette, drank a cup of coffee, or touched a drop of alcohol.
Pam Powers, UW-Stout communications specialist, who worked as a newspaper reporter in Dunn County for about 28 years recalls Russell as a Dunn County icon: “I kept two copies of the book ‘Where the Wild Rice Grows’ that John co-authored for Menomonie’s 150th anniversary to use for historical information on the area. John was a wealth of knowledge about Dunn County and was always willing to share the information he had. His wit was second to none.”
In Smoot’s opinion, “There’s not any single individual ever who’s been more influential in preserving, promoting, and sharing Dunn County history than John. From his work with the Wakanda burial mounds, to his work in preserving the Mabel Tainter and the Caddie Woodlawn House, to his part in getting a new facility for the museum, to his countless ‘Scenes of Yesteryear’ and ‘Lore and Legends’ columns, I don’t know that anyone’s come close, or anyone ever will.
“Not only that, but he personally collected hundreds of books and thousands of photographs, many of them one-of-a-kind, most of them which would have vanished if John hadn’t snagged them and preserved them,” he added. “And this doesn’t even get into his legacy of promoting the arts and theater in Menomonie.”
Don Steffen, president of Dunn County Historical Society — and in which Russell held the title of curator emeritus, agrees.
“John Russell is likely the name that comes to mind for most people in Dunn County if you were to mention our area history,” Steffen said. “He was responsible for obtaining the first major gift from businessman Russell Rassbach, which led to the fine museum in Wakanda Park. He researched and built many of its first exhibits. ... He is perhaps the sturdiest part of the foundation our organization is built on and his influence can be found throughout our operation. He will be missed. Our job, of course, is to inspire the next John Russell.”
Fellow Menomonite and history buff, John O. “Jack” Holzhueter served with Russell on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s governing board and is among those who remembers when Russell took his high school graduation picture. Noting John’s knack for entertaining people, one of Holzhueter’s favorite recollections is of the “splash” John made in the 1946 centennial parade when he paddled down Main Street in a canoe he had constructed and strapped on that sported a sign that said something about when and how the area’s first settlers arrived.
“This made quite a hit with the kids,” Holzhueter said. “He was a man with an abundant sense of humor as well as a lot of artistic talent and a real love of history. And he combined them all the time. ... He had his fingers in many pies. I don’t know where he found the energy to do all the things he did and try to run a business and raise a family.”
Holzhueter called Russell’s passing as a great loss to the community, “but you can’t live forever. He can’t be replaced. There’s nobody who’s going to take up the cause the way he did.”
Kevin Thorie, former UW-Stout archivist, said Russell played a strong role in the archives’ Area Research Center being part of the university. “He worked with Chancellor [Bob] Swanson to help maintain it. In addition to his columns which we indexed and put on the internet, he made a number of contributions — several diaries and other materials that were donated by him and his wife, Lou.”
Thorie counts one of his favorite experiences as the time he and John cleaned out the old Dunn County News building. He said, “We went upstairs and were told we could take whatever we wanted.”
An historian’s dream, they collected old newspapers, the 1877 plat, and Knapp, Stout & Co. Company’s maps for the museum. “It was one of the funnest times. I spent the whole afternoon talking with John and going through stuff. It was one of the happiest times of my life in the archives.”
By the way, John took the pictures at Thorie’s wedding 18 years ago.
Juliana Schmidt, singer, voice teacher, UW-Stout professor and founder of the Menomonie Singers, recalls the day she met John Russell for the first time.
“It was 1986. I was trying to get into the Mabel Tainter to go to the library that was in the building at the time. I had baby Alex in my arms, and Kara, age four, was nearby. I was trying to grab her hand to keep her with me. I was also juggling a framed print of a famous piece of artwork. At that time you could check out copies of artworks to hang on your wall, and then bring them back in three weeks.
“I literally had my hands full! John, who coincidentally was also on his way into the Tainter, said, ‘Do you need some help?’ I was so glad to have him come to my aid,” Schmidt continued. “He took the framed print, I took Kara’s hand, and we all went in together. He introduced himself.”
Another story involved one of John’s favorite tricks in his role as a photographer.
“Whenever he personally handed the photos that he had shot for me, he would take them out of the envelope, look at the photo on the top with the image right side up,” Schmidt recounted. “He would hand the photos directly to me, and say ‘I printed them upside down!’ And we would laugh as I turned them right side up.”
Concluding her recollections of a man she considered a dear and true friend, Schmidt observed, “He was a model of service to this community. And a great man — an icon for Menomonie and Dunn County.”
We’ll let John have the last word: When I asked him if he ever thought about retiring, John said, “Heavens, no! My head is filled with entertaining notions — every day it’s something new. When you’re doing the work you love, life is good. Mine has been wonderful.”