January 13, 2024 | Michail Takach & B.J. Daniels

In Memoriam: Jerry Johnson

Jerry Johnson was a devoted community activist for over five decades. He made significant gifts of time, money and materials to support the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project.
Jerry Johnson

Jerry Johnson (June 21, 1943-May 25, 2023) was a devoted community activist for over five decades.

He lived a very full life before ever moving to Milwaukee. He attended Milton College, served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria, and operated the Lake Movie Theater in Pewaukee. In 1969, he won a Showmanship Award from Box Office magazine and the Showman of the Year Award from the National Association of Theater Owners.

Jerry moved from Pewaukee to Milwaukee in 1973 to live with his significant other, Steven Walther. Unfortunately, Steven passed away in September 1977. Jerry took a job in the purchasing department at Gimbels, where he won the “Merchant of the Month” Award in 1982.

Bringing beauty back to Brewer's Hill

Against his friends’ advice, Jerry bought a historic home on North Palmer Street in 1980. At the time, the neighborhood was seen as abandoned, barren, and dangerous. Although the asking price was $1,000, Jerry was able to negotiate a discount to $750. People thought he was crazy. But soon, Brewer’s Hill became the place to live. Within a year, Jerry founded the Historic Brewer’s Hill Neighborhood Association and hosted the first two meetings in his home. He successfully nominated Brewer’s Hill as Milwaukee’s first historic neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. Through his pioneering efforts, Jerry sparked a residential renaissance for a long-forgotten neighborhood.

Restoring the house, on the other hand, became a long-term project that never seemed to start or finish.

“There were bats in the attic!” remembered longtime friend Scott Gunkel.

“It was a wreck inside,” remembered Bill. “There were holes in some walls, an only partially finished kitchen, and an upstairs that was just as bad. The furniture was old and tired. They often talked about fixing it, and at one point, I thought they would. But they never did.”

Giving the people light

Jerry met his longtime partner, Dr. Terry Boughner, through a personals ad in the Advocate that sought a lifetime significant other. Together, they founded the Wisconsin Light in November 1987 and operated the publication out of their Palmer Street home. Dr. Boughner was the editor and wrote most of the content, while Jerry was the newspaper’s photographer and publisher.

“It’s important to understand that Terry and Jerry saw the need for a real newspaper,” said Bill Meunier. “InStep was mostly devoted to bar news, but with AIDS raging and political forces changing, they felt a real need to bring news of concern to the LGBT community. Jerry never said the paper was unbiased. He called it advocacy journalism. And Terry and Jerry invested everything they had in the paper. We only printed the facts as we knew them, but we centered on mews that moved people to action.”

With only a minimal budget, the Wisconsin Light survived for over a decade, winning national recognition, awards, and partnerships.

“Jerry was so proud when Lambda Books said it wanted to distribute the Light nationally,” said Bill. “Lambda had bookstores in several cities, and they selected only three regional newspapers to distribute through their stores. The Light was one of them.”

“The Light was so important because it was one of a kind,” said Bill. “We wrote about the issues of the day, issues that really affected our lives. Whether it was the boycott of Colorado over Amendment 2, the Cracker Barrel protests, or exposing Zima, the Light was the main source of news on these issues. Politicians and other leaders read the Light to find out what was important to our community.”

“The lesson from the paper is that we MUST stay informed, and we MUST raise our voices.”

In 1998, the couple sold the paper, and the new owners ceased publication two years later. Jerry attempted to resurrect the Wisconsin Light in 2001, but the revival was unfortunately short-lived.

One of the Wisconsin Light’s greatest achievements was the “Decade of Light” 10th anniversary, a three-day gala held from November 7-9, 1997. The event raised over $10,000, which was donated to the Cream City Foundation. The Light published a special 120-page, three-section edition that commemorated its first ten years.

A leader among leaders

Jerry received numerous community awards over the years. 

  • On May 8, 1993, he and Dr. Boughner received the Professional Service Award from Frontiers for their “skillful and resolute efforts to provide… a professional and reliable news sources focusing on relevant issues.” 
  • In 1994, he was selected as co-Grand Marshall of the Milwaukee Pride Parade
  • On August 8, 1999, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by PrideFest Milwaukee, acknowledging his thousands of hours of unpaid volunteer time.

One of Jerry’s most lasting contributions to the community was the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project. Dr. Boughner, a professor, historian, and author, ignited Jerry’s passion for history. For years, Jerry organized, mounted, and displayed thousands of LGBTQ memorabilia items from his personal collection at PrideFest Milwaukee, including flyers, buttons, programs, photos, posters, T-Shirts, matchbooks and more. 

In 2006, he donated his entire collection to the University of Wisconsin Libraries, including hundreds of gay media publications. He made personal gifts of time and money to keep the history exhibit going, even in years when festival organizers didn’t see it as a priority.

Changing times

Dr. Terry Boughner passed away in January 2007. Soon after, a devastating fire ravaged the Palmer Street house, and the house was sold.

Jerry maintained an active social life for the next decade, but was no longer heavily involved in community organizations. He continued to support the History Exhibit at PrideFest Milwaukee, often challenging the tent's placement, layout, marketing, and funding.  

"Jerry believed that history needed to be seen by everyone," said Scott Gunkel. "He felt a tremendous amount of pride for how far the community had come, and he was often frustrated that youth didn't seem to know (or care) about history."

"Whether or not you wanted a history lesson at a pride festival, he was going to make sure you got one."

Jerry withdrew from public life shortly before the pandemic. This was unusual for someone who’d spent so much of their life in the public eye.

His sudden death on May 25, 2023 was a shock to everyone.

Remembering Jerry Johnson 

“Jerry lived his life with purpose and devotion,” said Scott. “He wanted to be part of moving things forward. It wasn’t about ego. It wasn’t about gain. It was what we could do together to keep moving forward.”

“Jerry’s dedication and integrity marked him as an exceptional human being,” wrote fellow activist Bill Meunier. “As someone once said, ‘the best that can be said of us after we die is that we left the place in better shape than when we got here.’ That can certainly be said about Jerry Johnson.” 

Jerry continued to receive recognition even after his passing. In July 2023, the Shepherd Express honored him with an LGBTQ Progress Award at their annual event.

“The age of LGBTQ activism in which Johnson made his mark was one in which individuals dedicated themselves to the community regardless of risk to life and limb,” read the tribute. “Unlike today’s leadership generation of presidents and CEOs, in Johnson’s era, community service was a way of life compensated by satisfaction, knowing the impact one had made towards the achievement of LGBTQ rights and equality.”

Thank you, Jerry. For everything.

The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003. Over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor.

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The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003, and over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor, bearing all costs for hosting the web site personally.