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Retiring ‘Dr. Bob’ will stay on serving River Falls-based Free Clinic

Dr. Bob Johnson, with his wife Mary Conroy-Johnson, is retiring from the River Falls Medical Clinic. A celebration for him will be Friday, Jan. 17, starting at 5:30 p.m. at the River Falls Golf Club.

After 35 years practicing medicine at River Falls Medical Clinic, Dr. Bob Johnson knows who works hardest at health care -- the patient.

“Patients say, ‘You take good care of me,’ but they do all the work,” said Johnson, whose special interests include the treatment of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

When he chose River Falls in 1978, Johnson thought it would be the ideal place to raise a family and practice medicine. He says the years have proven him right.

“The town exceeded my expectations,” said Johnson. With its rural feel but easy access to the attractions in a large metro area, “It’s got the best of both worlds.”

Johnson, now 65, is entering retirement with a plan to continue volunteering as medical director at the Free Clinic of Pierce and St. Croix Counties.

While he was growing up, his family lived in Wayne, Neb., a small college town before moving to Elmo Lake, Minn., with a population of 1,500.

Johnson first planned to make a career as a pharmacist. He attended pharmacy school at Gustavus Adolphus College in northeast Minneapolis and worked as a pharmacist in North Dakota for a summer.

When he actually began working as a pharmacist, he realized he wanted to do something more than retail.

“I enjoyed the people part (of medicine),” said Johnson.

Within months, he changed course and decided to apply to medical schools rather than study pharmacy in graduate school.

“It was a last-minute decision,” said Johnson. “But it was a good move.” He could have studied either at Berkeley College in California or at the University of Minnesota. He chose the latter.

“In 1972 Berkeley was kind of scary for a small-town Minnesota boy,” explained Johnson.

Getting accepted to medical school was no real obstacle. Johnson had a good academic record and because he had worked at St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center during his senior year as a pharmacy student, he had quite a bit of clinical experience.

A rotation in diabetes also steered him into a particular area of interest.

“That’s what really got me interested in the clinical part of medicine,” said Johnson.

Unanticipated author

The next year, one of his professors came into a class and said a doctor who had been working on a book about diabetes had died, leaving behind notes and an unfinished book.

The professor asked if any of the students would consider taking over the project.

“I raised my hand,” said Johnson. “Little did I realize that his ‘book’ was unintelligible notes on recipe cards.”

In 1974 the university published 20,000 copies of “Care and Treatment of the Diabetic,” listing only Johnson as the author.

“I don’t think I got anything for it,” said Johnson. “The university kept it all. I got my name on it.”

He did his medical residency at Bethesda Lutheran Hospital, a small hospital serving small neighborhoods.

As he looked for a place to practice medicine, Johnson called Dr. David Woeste, who had also trained at Bethesda and was then at the River Falls Medical Clinic.

“I saw the advantages of raising a family in a small college town,” said Johnson, who felt comfortable in River Falls just as he had in the town where he had lived as a child.

Dr. Orv Grassl was retiring, and in 1978 Johnson became the seventh doctor at the River Falls Medical Clinic.

“There were seven of us for a long time,” he recalls. The clinic, located then on Main Street, was old.

“I didn’t mind the clinic,” said Johnson. “The old clinic was kind of efficient.”

With a lab close to the treatment rooms, it was practical. But it was small and a few blocks from the hospital, so doctors did a lot of running back and forth.

River Falls Area Hospital is owned by Allina Health, which built a new building in 1993, but River Falls Medical Clinic, which built a new facility in 1992, is owned by its physicians.

“There aren’t many private groups left,” said Johnson. “It’s kind of a dying breed.”

He said staying independent, while it has many advantages, requires extra work from the doctors who must do business planning and some administration.

His niche for 25 years was physician recruitment.

“If the group decided we needed (another doctor), it was my job to try to find them,” said Johnson.

He estimates he recruited 90% of the doctors who joined the clinic but said the task was simple: “It’s pretty easy to sell the town of River Falls.”

His practice changed over the years, said Johnson.

“In family medicine your practice grows with you,” said Johnson, noting that young families often pick young physicians as their family doctors and stick with them as their children grow and the parents themselves age.

For the complete story, please see the Jan. 9 print edition of the River Falls Journal.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.

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