Even when he’s the man of the hour, Bill Johnsen prefers to stand behind the lens.
On Tuesday, dozens of well-wishers attended a Baraboo City Council meeting to watch Mayor Mike Palm present the Baraboo insurance agent, photographer and man-about-town with a Gem Award. As Palm read a proclamation in his honor, Johnsen — who of course had a camera slung over his shoulder — aimed his lens at the mayor and zoomed in as the audience giggled.
“Some of these are more fun than others,” Palm said.
He gives Gem Awards to citizens who make Baraboo a more prosperous place to live. Johnsen was honored as a mainstay in the business community and as a devoted volunteer who has given countless hours to Circus World, the Al. Ringling Theatre and downtown events. He has popularized the phrase “You gotta love Baraboo,” often using that as a tagline for photos capturing the Circus City’s unique charms.
Camera in hand, he has written the book on Baraboo. “They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” Palm said, reading a proclamation honoring Johnsen. “Bill has written volumes.”
Johnson delivered an acceptance speech that was in turns sheepish, comedic and heartfelt. “I’m usually in trouble,” Johnsen cracked. “I’m not used to getting awards for good behavior.”
Then his eyes swelled and his voice trembled as he continued addressing the council gallery. “Really what it boils down to is I’m just really being myself,” he said, “and this community has been so good to me.”
Johnsen is a lifelong resident who graduated from Baraboo High School in 1972 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After a stint in college he married Debra and, in 1979, joined his father’s insurance agency. He bought it upon his father’s 1988 retirement.
All along, photography remained a passion. He shot most of the photos in BHS’ 1972 yearbook with a 35 mm from Sears. Johnson put away his camera while raising a family, but local photographer Darton Drake pushed him — and coached him — to resume shooting. Around that same time, social media were going mainstream, providing a perfect easel for Johnsen’s work.
“Through his lens, Bill rediscovered this wonderful city, met all kinds of amazing people and had many adventures,” Palm said. “Rarely is there a function that occurs in Baraboo that Bill does not chronicle with his camera.”
That included a ceremony held in his honor Tuesday. “It’s as simple as, ‘You gotta love Baraboo,’” Johnsen said. “That’s it.”