Living Treasure: Gene Mortensen

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By Colleen Olinger

“From Sullivan Field here in Los Alamos, welcome to Hilltopper football!” … “From Edward Medina Gymnasium in Espanola, welcome to Los Alamos Hilltopper basketball!” … “From Santa Fe, Farmington, from Silver City, Las Cruces, … !” 2014 Los Alamos Living Treasure Gene Mortensen - the radio voice of Los Alamos sports, the ‘Voice of the Toppers.’
Owner of a beautiful baritone (and a quick repartee) Gene Mortensen is one of those rare adults in Los Alamos, a native New Mexican. Gene grew up and met Gail, his wife of over 54 years (also a New Mexico native) in Albuquerque during his student days at UNM. “That was it for me; I was ‘one and done’ as they say.”
Gene and Gail and their family of six young children (Larry, Debbie, Russ, Tammy, Dean, and Kent) arrived in here in 1968/69 when he began work as an analytical chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s then GMX-3 (retiring in 1993). “I was expecting that this would be a really nice place for the kids to grow up in. …The thing about the kids, we never had to worry about them. If they wanted to go downtown or to the high school or go to the gym or go see a game, they could walk over and walk back and we never worried about their safety. We were living in a safe environment in a really nice and beautiful community.”
Gene started PA (public address) announcing in 1979 for the Los Alamos Little League. That small beginning progressed to PA work for Topper junior varsity football and then varsity basketball and football. Ultimately his PA announcing expanded into soccer and volleyball.
Radio broadcasting came along in 1985 when KRSN asked Gene to play by play announce the state soccer tournament. At the time KRSN was the only radio station in the state broadcasting high school soccer. Gene also agreed to serve as secretary on the PAC-8 Board. By the late 1990s, the radio work had become “full-fledged,” he says. “I broadcast football, boys and girls basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball, baseball.“ In addition to a spectrum of local games, Gene began announcing New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) tournaments in 1997 and, soon, as event manager and PA announcer for the Class 3A State tennis tournament.
“With radio, you follow the team.” Gene has traveled over much of New Mexico, going as far afield as Silver City, Deming, and Las Cruces. “It’s a lot of fun to go on the road—you see different gyms, different schools and towns.” He seldom ran into hostile fans, but he laughingly recalls one basketball game here in Los Alamos with Taos. “The gym was absolutely packed. We were #1 in the state and they were #2. A huge contingent of Taos fans came. All the Taos people brought a newspaper; the idea was that as I introduced the Toppers, they would start reading, bored. My son Russ leaned over and whispered a suggestion to me. So I said, ‘Now ladies and gentlemen, here’s the home team – the Hill Toppers! And if you’ll read your newspapers, you will see that Los Alamos is the #1 team in the state of New Mexico!’ The gym just absolutely erupted. … The irony of it was that Taos beat us.”
Over the years, Gene has been especially supportive of girls’ sports. “I think I was one of the first in the state to do girls basketball on the PA. Parents would come and tell me how great it was. In fact, my sister had a good friend from Moriarty whose daughter came here to play. She went back and told her mother, ‘I felt like I was playing in the Pit. I had never been introduced, never had my name announced while I was playing.’ It made a big difference. The girls didn’t feel like they were second class. They were getting the same treatment as the boys.”
As a former high school basketball captain, football quarterback, and track (hurdles) star, Gene’s interest in sports came naturally and he started volunteering for the various activities his kids took up. “The first time I went over to sign up one of the kids, they were looking for coaches. I said I wouldn’t mind being an assistant coach. Then they said they were short on head coaches and could I help out.” That was the beginning. Over the years, Gene also coached basketball (his favorite sport), flag football, soccer, and little league.
Gene was an early proponent of T-ball. In 1978, the Little League asked him to come on the board as vice president in charge of T-ball. He organized the first T-ball league here. There weren’t any rules and he had to write all of them, organizing and monitoring and running the league for two or three years. “I was really happy to get T-ball off the ground. Before T-ball, when everything was pitch ball, you’d go out to practice or a game and you’d stand there and hope you had a kid who hit the ball and you hoped you wouldn’t hit the kid. With T-ball, you’d put the ball on the T and they could whack it and they could run and the kids could field; the kids learned the fundamentals. But the biggest thing was that they loved it and it was fun.”
Gene Mortensen is no newcomer to awards He has accumulated a host over the years:
Distinguished Service Award from the New Mexico Activities Association (2009) for his public address coverage and event management of the New Mexico State Class 3A tennis tournaments
Induction into the New Mexico Broadcasters Hall of Fame (2010), covering all of the state’s broadcasting media, commercial and noncommercial. For Gene, this was “an unbelievable honor … the pinnacle of my broadcasting career.”
Spirit of the West Community Assets in Action award (2012) from the Los Alamos Juvenile Justice Advisory Board and Chamber of Commerce for his long-term devotion to community athletics and young people.
Division 4 Excellence in Broadcasting – Top New Mexico Sports Play by Play from the New Mexico Broadcaster Association (2013). ]. Division 4 includes high school teams as far afield as Artesia, Portales, Deming, Silver City and Las Vegas.
Member of the Clendenen Award Committee annually honoring a high school senior boy and girl role model athlete.
Gene and three of his children (Larry, Russ, Debbie and her husband Mike Katko) owned Tony’s Pizza from 1988 to 1998. As such, they were among the original organizers and sponsors of Gordon’s Summer Concerts.
Today? “I’m still at it full time. When Gail died in 2010, radio work pretty much kept me going.”
“I love Los Alamos. It’s a nice community; it’s a beautiful community. What else could you ask for? The weather here is fantastic; the climate couldn’t be any better. If I want to take the dog for a walk in the woods, it’s an eight-minute drive. If I want to go uptown, it takes no time at all.
“Along the way, you help out when you can. You don’t think about it and it turns out that over the years, you end up getting involved in a lot of things. What an honor to join the members of the Living Treasures community. I find it very, very exciting. I am humbled by it.”