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The Voice of the Hilltoppers

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Gene Mortensen inducted into NMBA Hall of Fame

By Mike Cote

The “Voice of the Hilltoppers” is now a voice for the ages.

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Longtime KRSN sports announcer Gene Mortensen, who has been calling sporting events over the airwaves since the mid-1980s, was inducted into the New Mexico Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame in a ceremony Saturday in Albuquerque.

Mortensen, who is perhaps best known for his broadcasts of Los Alamos Hilltopper football and basketball games, was inducted into the Hall of Fame along with veteran University of New Mexico announcer Mike Roberts.

“It’s a humongous honor,” Mortensen said. “I couldn’t believe it. I had to find out about it through the grapevine. I think they wanted it to be kind of a surprise.”

It was supposed to be a surprise that Mortensen had been selected for induction by the NMBA, an organization of radio stations throughout the state, which was founded in 1954.

Mortensen was nominated for the honor by KRSN co-owner Gillian Sutton for his three decades worth of work for the local AM station. But the cat was inadvertently let out of the bag by the friend of one of Mortensen’s sons, Larry, who congratulated the announcer on his award.

Mortensen, who had picked up a Distinguished Service Award by the New Mexico Activities Association in 2009 for his public address work for the state small school tennis tournaments over the years, thought that was what he was being congratulated for, but a couple of off-hand comments he’d heard made him wonder if he was being kept in the dark about something entirely unrelated to that.

The first broadcasting assignment Mortensen was given for KRSN by then-owner Dean Burns was the 1985 state soccer tournament. Burt Buehrer, Mortensen’s longtime broadcast partner, didn’t have much interest in calling the soccer tournament and it was suggested to Burns that Mortensen, who’d already spent several years as a PA announcer at Los Alamos High School, might be a good candidate to get on the air.

Mortensen, who’d been a big sports fan his entire life, jumped at the chance.

Following his retirement as an analytical chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1992, Mortensen picked up broadcasting as his nearly full-time gig.

“I love high school sports and I love radio,” Mortensen said. “Being able to work as a high school sportscaster is a real privilege.”

Mortensen has been something of a groundbreaker during his nearly 30-year broadcasting career as well. Not only was Mortensen one of the first, if not the first, state announcers to call the state soccer tournament – which he still broadcasts most years – he was also one of the first broadcasters in New Mexico to call girls sports on a regular basis.

That was something former Hilltopper girls basketball head coach Gerry Washburn said he was grateful for in his many years of having Mortensen in the broadcast booth during his tenure.

“I can’t think of anybody who’s more deserving of this honor,” Washburn said of Mortensen’s induction. “Gene works tirelessly to promote Hilltopper sports and he’s extremely supportive of girls athletics.”

Mortensen’s work has been important in a lot of ways to the community, said Washburn, who is now the principal at Mountain Elementary School.

“He knows it’s important to the kids and the parents,” Washburn said. “Their high school experience is better for them. People that do that, they don’t get many rewards, so I’m extremely pleased he’s receiving this honor.”

One of Mortensen’s most vivid memories during his career, however, was a less-than-flattering comment his grandson Cory made about girls basketball. When Cory, then 10- years-old, was invited to sit in with Gene on a broadcast of a Hobbs-Los Alamos girls hoops game, Cory chimed in about the Hobbs Eagles, who were doing a number that night on the Hilltoppers, “so much for the expression ‘girls can’t play basketball.’ ”

The last several months have been eventful ones for Mortensen, both good and bad. Mortensen lost his wife of 54 years, Gail, in March.

Gail Mortensen, whom Gene described as incredibly supportive of his broadcasting career and occasional critic, would listen in to the Hilltopper broadcasts every chance she got.

The two met when Gene was attending The University of New Mexico in the mid-1950s. He met Gail at a drive-in and bugged a mutual friend for her telephone number shortly thereafter.

“That’s one of the things about this I really regret,” Mortensen said. “I wish she could be here to share this with me.”

While some local sports fans were concerned that Mortensen might give up his radio gig following the passing of Gail, Mortensen said he has no intention of wrapping up his microphone cord anytime soon.

Throughout his career, Mortensen worked with numerous coaches that have come and gone, but worked longest and most closely with former Los Alamos football coach Bob Scott.

Mortensen and Scott would sit down during the week prior to a Hilltopper football game and do rather lengthy interviews about the week’s game and the prior week’s game.

Scott said Mortensen is one of the best things that has ever happened to local sports.

“He’s done a lot for the community and for the schools,” said Scott, who retired following the 2009 season after 20 years at the helm of Hilltopper football. “He’s done an outstanding job ... he’s always on the road working so that people can listen to the games.”

Since KRSN started broadcasting regularly over the Internet, Mortensen said he’s heard from a lot of listeners throughout the country and even as far away as France.

Mortensen said he’s even had the opportunity to meet a few Web listeners, including family of local fans Matt and Becky Hardy, and have lunch with them.

KRSN co-owner David Sutton has expressed interest in diversifying for the 2010-11 school year to include regular broadcasts of Hilltopper baseball and softball in addition to its football, basketball and soccer coverage, something Mortensen said he welcomes.

For now, though, Mortensen said he’s going to enjoy his new honor.

“I’m really appreciative of the NMBA for doing this,” he said. “This is kind of the pinnacle of my career as a broadcaster. It’s pretty sweet.”