Joan Fordham

Baraboo volunteer Joan Fordham earned the Gem Award last week for her selfless community service.

She doesn’t consider herself a gifted gardener, but Joan Fordham has never been afraid to roll up her sleeves and dig in.

Fordham’s hands-on approach to service was recognized last week when the Sauk County Board member and longtime community volunteer won the Baraboo Gem Award. Each month, Mayor Mike Palm gives the honor to someone who has helped the community prosper.

“Joan has dedicated her time in Baraboo not only as a public servant, but also as an advocate for several of our nonprofit organizations,” Palm said.

Monday morning found Fordham struggling in the garden at her 15th Street home, where still-frozen soil wouldn’t cooperate. She has never shied from getting her hands dirty, whether it has meant balancing the books for a nonprofit organization or running for local political office.

“I just keep doing what I’m doing,” she said, adding with a smile, “I’m not smart enough to stay home.”

Fordham arrived in Baraboo with her family in 1971. A few years later she was elected to the Baraboo School Board, a seat she held for six years. Nearly three decades later she was elected to the Sauk County Board, which she continues to serve as vice chair. Fordham also has served on Baraboo’s Community Development Authority for 32 years, acting as chair for half her term.

Her willingness to get involved in community affairs is best summarized by a Boy Scouts motto: “You want to leave your campground better than when you came,” she said.

In addition to government service, Fordham has volunteered her time to numerous local nonprofit organizations. In 1978 she became administrator of the International Crane Foundation and helped oversee its relocation from City View Road to Shady Lane Road.

Fordham has twice served as executive director of Hope House, and has worked with Haiti Medical Mission of Wisconsin as an administrator since 2003. She serves on the St. Clare Hospice House advisory board and the Circus World Museum Foundation board. Recently she has devoted considerable time to ContinuUs, a family care agency she serves as board chair.

“Joan is always willing to volunteer for many causes that benefit our community,” Palm said.

There are similarities between government and nonprofit work, Fordham said. Both are overseen by boards and are restricted by tight budgets. A skill she has strived to develop over the years is working with different groups of people, from church leaders to Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance board members, both of whom she serves as treasurer. “That’s always a learning project for me,” she said.

When the Fordhams – her husband David, an engineer and administrator at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, died of cancer in 2003 – came to Baraboo, they expected to stay only a few years. But soon, despite Joan’s purported deficiencies as a gardener, they put down sturdy roots. They liked the people here, and enjoyed the area’s many opportunities for outdoor recreation.

“Baraboo has been very good to us,” she said.

She cited the Gem Award program – launched by Palm this year – as another example of what makes Baraboo a great place to live. Fordham said she was honored to be included in a group that includes business leader Merlin Zitzner and historian Bob Dewel.

“I think this is a really nice idea,” Fordham said. “It says that where we live is really special.”

This isn’t the first time Fordham has been honored for her work. In 2005 she won the Baraboo Kiwanis Club’s Dr. Al Dippel Community Service Award.

Fordham doesn’t plan to rest on her laurels, though. She vows to keep digging.

“I just keep on keepin’ on,” she said. “What else would I do?”