Passing on the passion
Menomonie's Tom Johnson has a love of community leadership, and he's trying to instill it in a new generation.
By Kay Kruse-Stanton
As Tom Johnson of Menomonie goes to meetings of various community and civic groups, he sees a trend he finds disturbing: The community's leaders are aging, and there are fewer and fewer younger leaders emerging to replace them.
"In a smaller community like Menomonie, you often find the same people serving on the boards and committees," he said. "Most of our great leaders grew up in the early part of the Depression and World War II, during a different generational time, when it was expected you would be involved in things.
"I'm looking around at my children, and it's a different dynamic. We've gone away from civic clubs and groups. We're going away from civic involvement."
That worries Johnson. It also saddens him. So he's decided to do something about it.
Johnson is a CPA, certified financial planner, and partner with Wipfli LLP in Menomonie. He opened the Menomonie office more than 20 years ago. An Independence native and a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduate, he didn't know many people in Menomonie when he first came to town.
"I thought going into accounting that I'd have the green eye shade on and the rolled up sleeves and I'd be sitting in the corner doing book work," he said. "I learned early that you can't just sit in the corner and expect people to walk in the door. I was forced to go out and meet people, to become involved in the community."
Johnson's company endorsed his early ventures into public service; Wipfli's corporate philosophy encourages participation in community improvement efforts. But beyond the business side of his volunteering, Johnson has found personal satisfaction.
"My wife would say I probably never met a meeting I didn't like," he said. "I finally figured out about a year ago what's at the heart of it. Part of my personality profile is the counselor, wanting to help people. It's helped me in my office, but it's helped me more to be able to give something back."
The more he's volunteered to help his community, the less he's become that quiet accountant in the corner wearing the green eye shade.
"It's narrow to define somebody by their job, or their church, or by what organization they belong to, or what hobby they enjoy," he said. "You are all the things you are involved in. From a personal development standpoint, they all help build and define you."
Johnson would like others to have the opportunity to experience that personal growth -- while they also help their community. He and several others have been meeting informally for months now, working to establish a leadership development program tailored for Menomonie and the surrounding area.
"We have the endorsement of the (Greater Menomonie Area) Chamber and the (Greater Menomonie Area Community) Foundation. We're planning a visioning event for September, which will bring approximately 70 people from a cross-section of the community to try to get their vision of what they would like to see for leadership development," Johnson said.
Personally, he hopes the program will be intergenerational, drawing on the talents of established leaders to help younger people learn skills. He hopes it will use the extensive resources he sees in the community, including key instructors at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He hopes the program will target people who would not necessarily be identified as leaders -- people who have the potential but have never developed it, because they don't see themselves as leaders.
"If we can get them involved they may find they not only have leadership qualities, they may not only find they have time to help, but they may grow in themselves," he said. "People will see a reward. They may not think they can do it, but once their project is over, they'll feel good about it and see the leadership qualities in themselves."
He recognizes that the leadership project is going to require much of his time, but said he just couldn't say no to a second project: developing a free clinic for people of the greater Menomonie area who either do not have health insurance or are under-insured.
One of the organizers of that project is Diane Simon, director of United Way of Dunn County.
"I know Tom is busy," she said. "I approached him just before tax season, to ask for his help. I expected him to say no. He had every right to."
But Simon has seen Johnson's talent at getting a project on line and creating a foundation to help ensure future funding. She knew she could rely on him to help the project along.
"People go to him. People have a lot of faith in him," she said. "He's a real strong force in the community."
Johnson helped form the Greater Menomonie Area Community Foundation, the Menomonie Area Health Foundation, the Menomonie Public School and Library Foundation, and Leave a Legacy, Chippewa Valley, an organization designed to help people plan their estates to include donations to foundations and charities.
Simon, Johnson and others are making good progress toward the goal of a free clinic. They have commitments from physicians for volunteer service hours, and some funding commitments toward the ongoing expenses of such a venture. They're searching for a facility and continuing to investigate ways to finance the clinic.
"It's a need in the community and in the area," Johnson said. "I was reluctant to be involved because of some of these other initiatives, but I couldn't say no. I'll help give birth to this, then let others go ahead."
That's his pattern when he joins a project with the goal of setting up a foundation. He helps get something started, then moves on to another area.
"He's very careful about picking the initiatives that he really believes in," Simon said. "That's another indication that he's working for the community. He's not just building a resume."
When Johnson joins a civic organization, though, he tends to stay active with it for the long haul. He's been president of the Dunn County United Way and the Menomonie Optimist Club, and on the boards of the Greater Menomonie Area Chamber of Commerce, Junior Achievement of Northwest Wisconsin, Menomonie Development Corporation, and Menomonie Rotary Club. He's served on the financial committee for Myrtle Werth Medical Center and has been treasurer for Our Saviors Lutheran Church.
His niche, however, is in forming foundations.
"How can we set up some things today that are going to benefit the community in the future? That's the direction I'm moving in now," he said. "I've sort of become Mr. Foundation."
Not surprisingly, even before the leadership initiative has fully taken form, he's looking on to the next level: creating a foundation so the program will continue into the future.
"We have a tremendous heritage in this community of great leaders. If you look at our past Chamber Citizen of the Year recipients, you'll see a list of names of great leaders," he said.
"Wouldn't it be great to have an endowment leadership fund that would honor or memorialize our past Citizens of the Year and use the funds from that to provide a scholarship for someone who is not financially able to pay $1,000 or $1,200 to go through a leadership program? How great would that be?"
Kay Kruse-Stanton is a freelance writer from Menomonie. Contact the Chippewa Valley Business Report at 723-5515 or through www.chippewavalleybusinesreport.com
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