Tuesday, September 18, 2018

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Life Story: John Russell remembered as a man of history, arts and action

Menomonie native made a profound impact on Dunn County, those who knew him say

MENOMONIE — It seems it’s a challenge to explain the many ways Menomonie native John Russell contributed to the city’s community, history and well-being.

Some Dunn County resident are trying their best to complete a clear picture of the area historian, photographer and actor, who died Thursday at age 93.

Russell was born in Menomonie and later graduated from UW-Madison. He returned to Menomonie in 1952, where he worked at a photo studio established by his father.

Don Steffen, university editor at UW-Stout, said it’s daunting to think about everything he did.

“You’re almost afraid to write about him for fear of leaving something out,” Steffen said.

For starters, Steffen explained, Russell was instrumental in the creation of the Russell J. Rassbach Heritage Museum in Wakanda Park. The museum has Russell’s fingerprints everywhere, Steffen said.

Frank Smoot, executive director of the Dunn County Historical Society, said the museum wouldn’t be where it is today without Russell’s support.

Russell was deeply involved in the community. For example, Smoot said, he had a hand in restoring the Caddie Woodlawn home on Highway 25 and saved some artifacts in a Native American burial mound.

Smoot said when a burial mound was at risk of being submerged in the 1950s, Russell organized a crew to retrieve anything they could.

“That’s thanks to the local effort with John,” he said.

Russell was among the people who helped orchestrate the restoration of the Mabel Tainter Theater, 205 Main St. E.

Lucy Weidner, who is involved in the Menomonie theater scene, said Russell had a “huge impact” on the theater. Not only did he play a role in restoring it, but he was one of the founding members of the Menomonie Theater Guild. 

He also was a playwright, penning an original play called “Black Friday,” which recounts the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in three acts.

“He’s going to leave a big hole in the community,” she said.

Jack Holzheuter, retired member of the Wisconsin State Historical Society, said he was impressed Russell always had a fresh story; he rarely repeated himself.

“His enthusiasm for state and local history was remarkable,” he said.

Russell was known for his Scenes of Yesteryear column in the Dunn County News. He also wrote at length about state history in his Wisconsin Lore and Legends, a syndicated column that appeared in newspapers throughout the state.

According to Holzheuter, Russell’s diligence to historical preservation was unusual. Other historians will typically put blinders on and rarely look outside of their community for context.

What made Russell special, Holzheuter said, was that he could fit Dunn County’s history into the larger picture.

“He saw things in a broader context,” he said.

Steffen said Russell was an important individual in Dunn County’s community, history and arts. He said it’s the Dunn County Historical Society’s goal to inspire “the next John Russell.”

“Because every community needs someone like him,” he said.

Contact: 715-830-5840, ben.rueter@ecpc.com, @BenRueter on Twitter


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