Jan. 22, 2013
By Courtney Ratkowiak
As a high school student in the late 1950s in Jackson, Mich., John Junge thought he would attend community college due to personal financial limitations.
But after earning a scholarship to the University of Michigan, he was able to graduate with two degrees -- a bachelor's in industrial engineering in 1964 and an MBA in 1967 -- and enjoy a successful career in business.
Over the next 37 years, as the CEO and president of Champions of the West, Inc./All Star International in San Diego, Junge had more than realized the value of his investment.
When Junge and his family learned in 2002 that the Michigan Athletic Department sorely needed an events center for recruiting, banquets, press conferences and meetings, the family donated more than $2 million toward the construction of an 11,400-square-foot facility. The $4.5 million facility was completed in 2005 and named the Junge Family Champions Center and Mortenson Family Plaza.
"Being privileged to attend the University of Michigan is a blessing, and it's a further blessing sometimes to be able to give back," Junge said via video at a recent event at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where he was honored with a Distinguished Alumni Award.
The construction of the Mortenson Family Plaza, an open-air plaza atop the Junge Center used for tailgates and recruiting, was possible due to a significant gift from the Mortenson family. Ken Mortenson (MBA 1969), who retired from Oppenheimer Capital as a managing director in 2000, was inspired to give back to the University by one of his closest friends, Bob Baumgartner (offensive lineman, 1967-69). Shortly before Baumgartner passed away from cancer, Mortenson became involved with his family, teammates and friends to establish the Robert A. Baumgartner Football Scholarship Fund to honor his memory. From there, Mortenson endowed his own football scholarship, the Mortenson Family Scholarship Fund, and continued to look for opportunities to donate.
"I became good friends with Bill Martin (former director of athletics), and he said they needed a roof (for the Junge Champions Center), so I said I would go ahead and fund it," Mortenson said. "I was able to do this because of my success in business, and clearly an MBA at Michigan helped me get in a position to make that decision."
After U-M received donations from both families, construction commenced in late 2004 on the grassy hill between Michigan Stadium and Crisler Center. The only inconvenience from the construction came when equipment manager Jon Falk had to find a new place to store extra Michigan football gear.
"Underneath the hill was a tunnel that went from the (football) home locker room to the Crisler Arena tunnel, and nobody knew it was there," said Mary Passink, administrative assistant to the head coach for recruiting. "There was a walkway underground, and they had installed fencing cages on both sides of the walkway so Jon could store equipment there."
"Being privileged to attend the University of Michigan is a blessing, and it's a further blessing sometimes to be able to give back."
Falk found new places to store his extra football equipment, and the Junge Family Champions Center became the new home for a variety of internal and external events. The center is currently used for athletic department banquets, receptions and meetings, press conferences, summer camps and meet-the-team events. Michigan Athletics special events coordinator Katy Hepner said the most unconventional events held in the Junge Center since its inception include a bar mitzvah and an engagement party.
Though the facility is used throughout the year, football season is when the benefits of the Junge Center and Mortenson Plaza are most visibly recognized. Every football season, Michigan football alumni hold an annual "chili and cornbread" reunion event at Mortenson Plaza as a chance for past players to reconnect. Last season, the Plaza played host to former Michigan football coach Gary Moeller and the 1992 Rose Bowl team as part of a pregame celebration.
In addition to special football events, the Junge Center is primarily used in the fall for recruiting. Before the center was constructed, Athletic Department representatives set up an eight-foot table at the former Crisler Arena for football recruits to pick up game tickets on game days. Student volunteers would escort recruits through the Michigan Stadium tunnel down to the stadium in groups, and there was little interaction before the games due to lack of space.
With the addition of the Junge Center, recruits are now invited to meet two hours before game time and get to know each other in a central meeting space that is decorated with video boards, highlight reels and pictures from past Michigan football games. Given the center's proximity to the football locker rooms, the Michigan football coaches are able to greet recruits on their way to the stadium.
"Right inside the lobby, when you walk in the main doors, you see the concrete wall that says, 'Those who stay will be champions,'" Passink said. "Nowadays, some of the recruits we have coming in don't even know who (Bo) Schembechler was, if they're from other states or not from around this area. It turns out to be a great area for kids to get their pictures taken, and they're impressed by the wall."
And though the atmosphere on the Michigan Stadium field speaks for itself, having a common space where potential Wolverines can learn more about the University's athletic tradition helps make a lasting impression on recruits starting from their first visit to Ann Arbor.
"It's so obvious to me that the entire university benefits from the enthusiasm around sports," Mortenson said. "With my love of sports and my love of Michigan sports, if I can support that and enjoy myself at the same time, it's a good combination."