RACINE - Decades ago, the entrance to the Racine Zoo was a single lot on Main Street.
"I said to my wife, it's too bad we've got a wonderful zoo with an entrance that's a tunnel," said Charles Johnson, recalling a conversation he had with his wife, Jennifer, about 30 years ago. "We should buy some houses and widen it out a little bit."
That's what they did.
Since then, Charles and Jennifer Johnson have donated about $1.5 million to the Racine Zoo, zoo officials said, primarily through property purchases and donations.
The Johnsons steadily bought properties on Main and Goold streets. In general, Johnson said, they would donate the properties to the Racine Zoological Society, which would in turn give them to the city. The city owns the land the zoo sits on, and the Zoological Society operates the zoo. The city just approved spending $10,000 to tear down the last remaining house in a group of three the couple purchased on Goold Street several years ago.
"Mrs. Johnson and I, we sort of figured out a long time ago that we all get bombarded with requests to help and different things," Johnson said. "A lot are very worthwhile. We have a kind of
algorithm to concentrate on a couple situations."
They chose three places to make their donations: the Racine Zoo, Rochester's Mayo Clinic and Johnson's alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"We could do something more significant with those three than by hitting so many," he said. "Those three sort of cover education, medical and recreational, with the zoo the recreational, local thing we're supporting."
Johnson and his wife started a software company 38 years ago, he said, and just sold it a few months ago. Except for his time away at college and in the Army, he has lived in the City of Racine his entire life.
Johnson grew up on Augusta Street, just a few blocks from the zoo. When he was younger, he said, he would run through the zoo every morning.
"We referred to it as a backyard zoo, hiding behind all these houses," he said.
Now, the zoo is opened up to people driving by and is a more prominent part of the neighborhood.
"We think that the zoo is such a fabulous site there on the lake," Johnson said. "We think it's one of the more significant features of Racine. Then, of course, all these groups like the zoo, (with the economy) there have been financial problems, so we've been trying to help them make it a better zoo."
Jay Christie, president and CEO of the Racine Zoo for more than 11 years, said the Johnsons' commitment to the zoo has had an incredible impact on it.
"It really opened the zoo up and made it more visible and more inviting, and, frankly, more like an accredited zoo," Christie said. "Before Chuck and Jen really got involved, there were a lot of ways to get in, but it was like going through a back lot. It was nothing like what it is today. (The Johnsons have been) we think, unquestionably strategic in the way they decided to go about investing in the zoo."
Ultimately, no one at the zoo knows exactly how much the Johnsons have given over the years. When the Johnsons bought houses to donate to the zoo, they also paid back taxes and expenses related to demolition, zoo officials said. And, on top of the property donations, the couple has made numerous, sizable donations for things like Zoo Debut, breakfast fundraisers, Animal Crackers and zoo improvement projects.
This kind of donation, Christie said, isn't for every zoo supporter.
"This is something that might have been a harder sell to an ordinary donor," Christie said, "especially when you consider the overall amount invested and the time line. It certainly wasn't a one-off, here's a new elephant kind of donation. It's a long-term calculated program that will serve the zoo very well, virtually forever."
Without the Johnsons' donations, the zoo's expansion and its new entrance would likely never have happened.
"There really weren't government funds or something like that," Christie said. "It's safe to say that without Charles and Jennifer Johnson the zoo would have a very different look to it today."