By Lisa Schmelz | Photography by Holly Leitner
They call him Mr. Lake Geneva. He knows just about everybody. Some folks even think he’s the city’s mayor.
But Mr. Lake Geneva is not the mayor. He’s a guy whose family ties to the area date back to 1836. A guy who was lucky enough to be born and raised here. A guy who went west for a while, felt the call of home, returned and now aims to preserve the magic of the place that formed him.
His real name? Sean Payne. His legendary ties to the area? His fourth great uncle — Christopher Payne — came here from Belvidere, Illinois, liked what he saw, and became Lake Geneva’s first European settler.
“Everybody says he was not a very nice guy, is what the history tells us,” says Payne of his noted ancestor. “But he built a mill here and the first house.”
Unlike his pioneering uncle, Sean, the son of Joe and Jane Payne, is a nice guy. A very nice guy. He may not be the mayor, but he is a whole lot of other admirable things that deserve notice. He’s as civic minded as they come, volunteering thousands of hours on local boards and committees. He’s also managed Clear Water Outdoor for 13 of the store’s 16 years. And if you’ve been to the Lake Geneva Farmer’s Market recently, and liked what you saw, you have him to thank for kicking it up a notch.
So, yes, the moniker Mr. Lake Geneva really fits in this case. But does he ever want to be the actual mayor? “Being the youngest of seven, I like being liked,” he says, laughing and recalling times when he was referred to as Mr. Mayor when the actual mayor at the time was seated right next to him. “And, no, I don’t think I’d want to be the mayor. I do respect what they do, but that’s not me.”
What is him is serving the community that gave him the life he treasures. Quite simply, Mr. Lake Geneva loves Lake Geneva and he wants the Lake Geneva he loves to be loved by others — whether they are just passing through or living here permanently.
To that end, he helps run the annual auction for the YMCA. (If you’ve recently set down roots here, it’s the social event of the season.) He also serves on the board of the historic Horticultural Hall. When they asked him to take over the farmer’s market, he took what had been a 16-vendor affair to nearly 50. He’s a former Jaycee. And, basically, if you’re attending a fundraiser in town, there’s a strong chance he is playing a part in it.
So what drives him to give so much of his time and talent to this lakefront hamlet? “This is one of the most amazing communities,” says Payne. “Everybody is looking out for everybody.”
A CHILDHOOD TO ENVY
Payne, whose parents operated some of the area’s most popular bars and restaurants, including Mars Resort on Lake Como and later Jane’s in Lake Geneva, grew up on local beaches and ski hills. He also knows what it’s like to be served an ice cream cone as a young child by a Playboy Bunny at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club-Hotel, which is now Grand Geneva Resort & Spa.
If you’re meeting Sean for the first time, which I was, his fifth-generation Lake Geneva status is impressive. His paternal grandmother, Genevieve Payne (née Lazzeroni), and her family owned and operated Hotel Clair, in what is now the Landmark Center downtown. But what really draws you in are his childhood stories of a place that seemed like a Midwestern, lakefront Mayberry, only this incarnation wasn’t a dry town.
His late mother, Jane, owned a bar and grill where Flat Iron Tap is now located. In summer, from the time he was about eight until he was about 15, a typical day looked something like this:
“So, I could walk right down there [the bar] from home in the morning and I would restock the beer and ice, and then I’d go to the beach.”
And when the beach closed for the day? “Then, I’d go back and restock the beer and ice again, and then head home.”
The Geneva Lake Shore Path, which surrounds the entire lake and is open to the public, was as familiar to Payne as the roads around town. As a child, he had better access than most of us. When there was enough snow, he’d set out with his sled to one of the biggest landmarks on the lake: Stone Manor. “Because I grew up down the shore path,” he recalls, “they would let us sled in the front.”
Payne also was a huge fan of skiing and there was nothing better than a good winter storm, which would transform the heart of the city into a playground. “When it snowed a lot, they would shut the traffic off and we would cross-country ski downtown.”
When he wasn’t cross- country skiing downtown in winter, he was likely at Majestic Ski Hill. Opened in 1957, the small ski resort was constructed on a former chicken ranch and was enormously popular. As a boy and as a teen, Majestic lived up to its name for Payne.
“We’d go, when we were little, and just get dropped off there, my sister and I, and we would ski all the time. My mom would drop us off at 9 and the lifts opened up at 9:30. Literally, all she had to do was make lunch for us — you just left your lunch in a locker. That was on the weekends. On weekdays, 4:30 was the second ski time start. I couldn’t stay until 10 until I had my own car. My birthday is March 7, and if there was snow, my mom would let me skip school and ski. She’d drop me off in the morning and pick me up that night. It was great.”
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Like a lot of folks who grow up in a small community, no matter how charming it may be, Payne wondered what it would be like to swim in a bigger pond. He graduated from Badger High School in 1984, took off for Arizona, then headed to Boulder, Colorado. He’s done extensive work in the hospitality sector, and eventually, he realized he wanted to be where he started: Lake Geneva.
In 2002, he accepted a position as the food and beverage manager at Lake Geneva’s Hillmoor Golf Club. In 2005, he married his wife, Sharon, and in 2006, they welcomed their son, William. He signed on at Clear Water Outdoor, a retail outlet for outdoor clothing and gear, in 2007. Making the switch from hospitality to retail, he says, wasn’t a big leap. “It’s all about serving the customer,” he says simply.
And while he serves customers at Clear Water, he serves everyone else who happens to spend any length of time in or around Lake Geneva. In 2018, his efforts were recognized with VISIT Lake Geneva’s Stu Herzog Award, which is given to individuals who have made a positive impact on the Lake Geneva area. Those in attendance at his award ceremony noted he’s equally adept at selling high-end outdoor gear, running a farmer’s market, emceeing a charity auction or giving a first-time visitor to the area suggestions on where and how to spend the day.
Stephanie Klett, the president and CEO of VISIT Lake Geneva, and the secretary of tourism for the state of Wisconsin for eight years under Gov. Scott Walker, says you can’t put a price tag on Payne’s ambassadorship to the area.
“He is the walking and talking history of Lake Geneva,” she says. “He is the ultimate cheerleader. I don’t mean that in a superficial way. That’s really what a cheerleader is: An enthusiastic and vocal supporter of something or someone. It’s two separate words — cheer, leader. He brings stability and energy of the past and present and elevates the visitor experience. When I think of Sean, I think of Lake Geneva at its best.”