John Anderson remembered as tireless, selfless volunteer

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Neil Johnson
Friday, November 29, 2013

JANESVILLE—Until a about year ago, Janesville resident John Anderson did the best he could to keep a small part of the Janesville Rotary Gardens beautiful. 

At the Rotary Gardens' Italian garden, Anderson would follow along behind his wife, Joanne Olsen-Anderson—the real gardener of the two—and take orders from her.

While Joanne pruned plants and landscaped, John would tend to the small details. He'd push a wheelbarrow and fill buckets full of weeds he'd pulled in the hot summer sun.

Light duty, maybe, but still hard work for a man in his mid-80s whose body had started to slow down.

More than a decade ago, Anderson was one of several volunteers instrumental as chairman of a fundraising group that made the Rotary Gardens a reality. Yet as a puller of weeds and a pusher of wheelbarrows at the gardens, Anderson wasn't there to handle things. He was there to help.

For the last half of his life, help was all Anderson did. His work at the Rotary Gardens was one of more than a dozen volunteer roles he held throughout Rock County.

Some of his volunteer work included leadership roles with The Boy Scouts of America, the Salvation Army, the YMCA of North Rock County, Rock County Habitat for Humanity and various area chambers of commerce.     

Anderson's helping hand is gone now. He died Nov. 23 at 86 years old.

Andy Olsen, director of the Boy Scouts' local Indian Trails District, became Anderson's colleague and friend during part of the 40 years Anderson spent on directory boards with the Boy Scouts, including a long stint as president of the former Sinnissippi Council.

Olsen said Anderson was the one of the most faithful, dependable volunteers he's ever known.

"I've listened to a lot of people who tell me their beliefs, but John lived a life wreathed with action," Olsen said. "He was a guy you could call on and count on to get doors open for kids. I'm sure a lot of things John did weren't personally convenient, but he did them out of his own personal belief of what John Anderson wanted to become. What he became was selfless.”

Don Draeger of Janesville, a former Boy Scouts Sinnissippi Council official and a friend of Anderson, said Anderson had great skill at gathering support for the causes for which he volunteered.

Draeger, 98, remembers how Anderson got him to chip in a cash donation to build out the Rotary Gardens facility.

“He got $250 out of me for the (Rotary) Gardens just like that. That money just seemed to part ways with me,” said Draeger. 

Draeger, who was an accountant for several local businesses, got to know Anderson when Anderson was vice president and part owner of SSI Technologies in Janesville. Draeger said Anderson was dignified, classy and always neatly dressed—but never showy.

“I think John was a member of one of the country clubs, but I don't remember that he even golfed. He was the last guy you'd ever see driving a flashy Cadillac all over the place. He had a regular house, nothing fancy. You'd have to say he was an old, plain Joe,” Draeger said.

Anderson, who was class valedictorian at West Milwaukee High School, was a metallurgical engineer and a World War II veteran in the U.S. Army.

Local resident Gary Smith, who worked with Anderson through Rotary Gardens, said Anderson was a quiet but sincere man who contemplated his words before he spoke.

“He didn't seem to get excited about anything. He'd form a thought, and it always got to the root. It made sense. When he spoke, people listened,” Smith said.

Draeger said the hardest part of volunteer work isn't finding people with big ideas, but finding those who see the ideas through. Whether it was seeing a Boy Scouts office at Palmer Park to completion or selling every last ticket to an annual fundraiser concert, Anderson always followed through, Draeger said.

“He was reliable and timely. If there was a matter to tend to, it got tended to right then," he said. "John did not let it slide.”

Olsen said he's not sure how groups such as the Boy Scouts that rely heavily on volunteer service will fare in the future. He views Anderson's generation—and Anderson himself—as the last of a breed who view volunteer service as an honor, not just another responsibility. 

“It sounds really pessimistic, but guys like John, they're irreplaceable," he said. "Sadly, I don't see it (volunteering) on the same level with younger generations of men. He leaves a void that I'm not sure that gets filled. We speak to that shortage, but politically, we're uncomfortable talking about it.

“Fact is, I see more guys worried about whether they're driving a $30,000 Harley on the weekends than helping with kids or doing anything else volunteer. That was not John.”

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