BY NAOMI KOWLES
For the Star Journal
“Let me see what I can do.”
As former Rhinelander Mayor Dick Johns recounted stories from his 54 years inside the city’s council chambers, nearly all of them started with those words. Whether it was chasing down funding for projects or responding to a request from a citizen, Johns knew how to get things done.
His legacy of service can be found in such community cornerstones as Nicolet Technical College, Rhinelander’s state of the art wastewater facility, Tri-County Human Services, and – one of his favorites – the historical mural stretching across an entire wall of the council chambers at City Hall.
“That’s what our city’s about,” Johns said as he described the various symbols found in the mural. It portrays Rhinelander’s key landmarks and institutions, from the Davenport Street Bridge and downtown Rhinelander to the ghost of the Hodag encircling the depiction of City Hall. Johns asked the city for an initial $4,000 for the mural, but was able to bring the money back in full after raising about $13,000 in donations from the community.
Johns was 31 years old when he was first elected to city council in 1964, a position he would hold continuously until 2004 when he replaced Kevin Jenkins as mayor of Rhinelander. An employee of the paper mill and a veteran, Johns had been shot through the leg in the Korean War when he was still a teenager serving in the United States Army.
In those days, members of city council were by default also elected to the Oneida County Board, a position he used to garner support and cultivate relationships that enabled him to help establish such projects as Nicolet Technical College and Tri-County Mental Health Services.
A key challenge to both of those projects was dealing with the reality of a smaller population in Rhinelander and Oneida County that did not meet qualifications to obtain necessary state and federal funding or approval. Johns was called on in both instances to “see what he could do,” and he was able to use his relationships with other officials as well as his abilities to solve problems and make the compromises needed in order to implement those projects.
Not only did Johns help orchestrate the passing of resolutions in Forest, Vilas and Oneida County to create the mental health services system, but he served as its chairman for 18 years. The broader benefit of the services to the region is highlighted in his own stories, such as the time he was able to keep a widow’s two daughters in Rhinelander after she was told they would have to be sent to one of the state mental health institutions.
Another example of Johns’ ability to accomplish what had to be done was the funding for the new wastewater treatment plant completed in 2012. Johns was told that the $32.9 million project was originally too far down “the list” for the state stimulus package, a list determined by a formula that nobody could define for Johns. After making a few calls and a $70,000 payment for overtime services, Johns was told the formula had been reworked and Rhinelander would be awarded the money in grants and low-interest loans.
The implementation of the Premier Area Resort Tax (PRAT), voted in by a large majority in a referendum during the 2016 spring election, was another notable city achievement that occurred under Johns’ tenure as mayor. The PRAT attaches an additional 0.5 percent tax on goods sold by tourist-related retailers, a fund that can only be used to improve the city’s transportation infrastructure and which will be funding the payments on about $2 million in road projects set for repair in 2018.
“[It’s] a savior to the city. Use that, use it wisely,” he noted.
Not all of his stories were centered on landmark projects. When Johns got a call from a woman in Stevens Point about a Civil War veteran buried without a marker in the Forest Home Cemetery in Rhinelander, he set out again to go the extra mile. Johns tracked down the paperwork and the funeral details, finally locating the grave inside the cemetery grounds. He didn’t stop there, however; he got in touch with the Veterans Association and orchestrated a Memorial Day military ceremony for the soldier.
“Isn’t that nice?” he recalled with a chuckle. “That’s when you have a lot of fun being mayor.”
His wife Rose has remained a big part of his career. “Without her, I never would have made it,” he remarked. Lance Johns, his son, hopes his father will “simply enjoy his life,” now in retirement.
With three new faces on the city council after the spring election and Chris Frederickson entering government for the first time as Rhinelander’s mayor, Johns had some advice for the newcomers.
“Sit back and get educated,” he said.
Johns hopes that Frederickson would have the authority and the backing of council “to do what he has to do in order to do the job,” noting he would stay available to Frederickson for any assistance he needed.
Johns was honored recently at a gathering at City Hall, in which various friends, officials, and colleagues stopped in to visit and show their gratitude to the retiring mayor. His mayoral duties officially came to an end this week with Frederickson’s swearing in, although Johns says he isn’t finished investing in the community just yet.