Footville's Phil Johnson recognizes a need, fills it
Family: Two daughters, Tanya and Tammy, and one son, Christopher. His wife, Melva, died in March 2002.
Hobbies: "This takes care of it," he said, tapping a folder with information about his volunteer efforts. "Farming is a hobby. Anything you don't make money on is a hobby," he said laughing.
Favorite music: "Old-time rock 'n' roll … what we grew up with."
Favorite food: Angus steaks
Favorite place: "Wisconsin is about as far as I get."
Two words that best describe him: "Give back."
FOOTVILLE The toll-free number for Neighbors Helping Neighbors rings at a desk on Phil Johnson's farm outside Footville.
"Some of them are real tear-jerkers," he said of the people seeking help from the nonprofit organization. "When some of the people that call up, that's their last resort and they'll be crying on the phone."
He pointed to the 39 percent poverty rate in the Parkview School District and limited resources in the rural area. Johnson recognized the need for an organization that could help school district residents who lacked life's essentials.
So with friend Mike Eggleston, they started one.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors is in its third year, and Johnson has to take a deep breath before describing what the group has done so far.
"Oh, my goodness…" he began. The community came together over the holidays to help 55 families, providing gifts to more than 150 children and $1,500 worth of grocery gift cards.
The group operates year-round though, and much of the work is focused on connecting people with the right resources.
Johnson, the group's chairman, taps a folder containing a list of members.
"All I do is put them together," he said with a big smile. "When you get 15 people together, you take a huge problem and it becomes manageable. That's what we try to do."
Eggleston said he couldn't say enough good things about Johnson.
"What a tremendous person," he said. "All he does is give."
Johnson's impact can be seen far beyond the Neighbors group.
"He's always there when you need him," said Bobbe Stuvengen, who has worked with Johnson on community and veteran activities. "He's just very community-minded. He's just a real great guy."
Johnson is the chairman of the adult committee for Boy Scout Troop 651 and a member of the Orfordville Lutheran Church Council.
"He cares so much about people," Eggleston said.
He also keeps the show running as commander of the American Legion post in Orfordville, having served as an infantry sergeant in Vietnam in 1968-69. And he's an organizer of Veterans United for Veterans, a Janesville event that brings people together to support veterans.
"I guess it's such a big part of your life," he said of his efforts for veterans. "It's always there. You never get away from it."
Johnson retired in 2004 after 38 years at the General Motors plant, and "the volunteer stuff took on a life of its own," he said.
He still farms with his son Christopher, raising beef cattle and growing crops.
"Just giving back—that's about it," he said. "Some of us are so lucky. We're not touched by a lot of problems other people have, through no fault of their own."