Credited with exposing the presence of DDT and other pollutants in fish and game in the 1960s, the Menomonie man whose articles led to the first pesticide bans in the nation died at his home on Friday.
Don L. Johnson was one of Wisconsin's most-honored writers in the fields of nature, conservation and the outdoors. His career as an outdoor communicator took him to many remote regions of the world and won him a long list of honors, but he was best known for his insightful reports on the woods and waters of his native state.
Born in Milwaukee County, he attended public and parochial schools in Milwaukee and West Allis. Much of his boyhood, however, was spent on the farm of his maternal grandparents in Dodge County and the family farm in Buffalo County, where a lifetime love of the outdoors was deeply instilled.
Johnson quit high school in West Allis to join the Navy during World War II and served with the fleet and amphibious forces in the South Pacific. After his discharge in 1946, he attended the UW-Madison, where he studied biology, journalism and natural resources. He also worked for a time as a reporter and feature writer for the Winona (Minn.) Republican-Herald (now the Daily News).
In 1949, he married Lorraine Senn of Cochrane.
Returning to Madison, Johnson graduated from the university in 1951 and worked briefly for the Clark County Press in Neillsville. He then joined the staff of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, where he worked for the next 11 years. It was during that time that he began an outdoors page and column while a general assignment reporter and state editor. He also was elected to two terms on the school board for the Black/McKinley district.
In 1958, Johnson became chief of the paper's Menomonie news bureau and soon became involved in many community activities. He was a member of the Menomonie Police and Fire Commission, and was especially active in the Dunn County Fish & Game Association. In 1959, the Menomonie Jaycees named him “Young Man of the Year.”
Meanwhile, Johnson's outdoors columns were winning wide recognition. In 1960, he received the Gordon MacQuarrie Award “For Telling the Conservation Story.”
In 1962, he was able to focus on his love and concern for nature when he became the outdoors writer for The Milwaukee Sentinel.
During the next 23 years, his work there won many honors. He received the Conservation Communicator Award from the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, and was cited by many other professional and conservation organizations, such as the Ruffed Grouse Society, Great Lakes Sport Fishermen, Wisconsin Newspaper Association, United Press International and the Associated Press.
In recognition of his investigative reports, he was honored by the Audubon Society in 1974 “for accurate interpretive reporting on behalf of all life on earth.” For his efforts to save the Cache River basin from destruction, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation presented him its Golden Mallard Award. He was also recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for outstanding coverage of environmental issues.
Most recently, Johnson was inducted into the Freshwater Fish Hall of Fame at ceremonies that took place at the familiar environs of the Dunn County Fish & Game clubhouse in Wakanda Park.
Presenting the award, Bill Gautsche, the director of the Freshwater Hall of Fame and Museum in Hayward, called Johnson “a true artist of the pen, where the picture was never completed until it was perfect.”
“One of the things Don imparted,” he added, “was that when he wanted to make his point, he could disagree without being disagreeable.”
John Welter of Eau Claire, a member of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board, said that through his articles, Johnson has “given us the opportunity to live vicariously in places where we would want to be.”
Although assignments sometimes took him to far-off places, including Alaska, Africa and South America, he remained active in community and company affairs. He served as a member of the board of directors of The Journal Company and was chairman of the company's Unitholders Council. In 1982, the Sentinel staff voted him its prestigious “Excellence in Journalism” award.
Johnson left the newspaper in 1984 to become a freelance writer/photographer for a wide range of magazines and other publications. His work also appeared in several books, including “Harvest Moon” (Lost River Press, 1993); “Deer & Deer Hunting” (Krause Publications, 1993); “That Reminds Me of the One” (Willow Creek Press, 1995); and “Wisconsin Seasons” (The Cabin Bookshelf, 1998).
His book, “Grouse & Woodcock, A Gunner's Guide” (Krause, 1995) was acclaimed in reviews in numerous outdoor publications. A second book is entitled “Summer's Song and Other Essays,” a collection of essays on nature and wildlife from throughout Johnson's career, was published in November of 2005 (Hackmatack Hollow Press).
Johnson remained a leader in the field after semi-retirement in the 1990s and was sometimes referred to as “the dean of Wisconsin outdoor writers.” The Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association named him an honorary life member in recognition of “a lifetime of service to Wisconsin's outdoors,” and the Outdoor Writers Association of America named him its “Most Valuable Board Member.”
He also served on the Board of Governors of the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame and was director emeritus of the Izaak Walton League's Perkins Wildlife Demonstration Area in Waukesha County.
In 1991, the Milwaukee Press Club inducted Johnson into the Media Hall of Fame “for outstanding service to journalism and to the community.” The following year, he was inducted into the Milwaukee Sports Show Hall of Fame.
And in 2000, he was named to the Century Honor Roll as one of 20 individuals selected by the Wisconsin Outdoor Journal as having the greatest influence on hunting and fishing in the state during the 20th century, and also received a special award from the Dunn County Fish & Game Association.
In 2005, he was named to the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, honored by the Outdoor Writers Association of America “for excellence in outdoor communication,” and cited by the Wisconsin Board of Natural Resources for his contributions to conservation.
Douglas Johnson is Don L. Johnson's son. Dunn County News editor Barbara Lyon also contributed to this report.