Alumnus Robert E. Mortenson—CEO, humanitarian, and philanthropist—is the financial driving force behind the new Robert E. Mortensen Hall, which is benefiting aspiring artists at the Mason Gross School of the Arts.
If CVs could talk, Robert Mortensen’s would shout: four years of active duty in Vietnam, 30-plus years as the CEO of two major railroads, humanitarian and philanthropist, patron of the arts. So it’s something of a surprise to find that, in person, he comes off as modest and soft spoken—more eager to talk about the projects he supports than his own accomplishments. And though Mortensen ED’63 speaks softly, he’s helped to amplify the voices of a whole new generation of performing artists at the Mason Gross School of the Arts.
The same might be said of the new building that bears his name. The exterior of Robert E. Mortensen Hall is clean and spare, but inside, the hall is spacious and luminous. Among its extraordinary spaces are an airy movement studio, a 2,300-square-foot choral hall with vaulted ceilings and clerestory windows, and a light-filled atrium that’s already a popular gathering space. It’s unlikely that any of it would exist without the largesse of its principal benefactor.
Mortensen, who was inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 2005, never studied the arts at Rutgers—he first pursued political science and then education. But for the young baritone in the Kirkpatrick Choir, the Rutgers University Glee Club, and the University Choir, performing was a passionate part of college life. The experience opened his eyes to the world of music and to the world in general. In the 1960s, the University Choir enjoyed a close affiliation with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Mortensen’s enviable introduction to the performance of classical choral music was singing the cantata Carmina Burana with the orchestra under conductor Eugene Ormandy.
He also toured northern Europe with the glee club and remembers the experience vividly: wandering foreign streets, living with a farm family in the Netherlands, singing in churches and concert halls in Oslo, Copenhagen, and Hamburg. The trip so impressed him that, in 2003, he established an international glee club tour fund and has accompanied the club on each of its last four tours. “I’m only an observer,” he says, “but it’s so uplifting to hear the fabulous music that comes out of the tours.”
In fact, he’s a great deal more than an observer. “Bob’s love of choral music has made everything better here at Mason Gross,” says Patrick Gardner, director of choral studies, “and it’s not about sitting back and just writing a check.” He notes that Mortensen is an active presence in the choral program, attending practices and performances and making phone calls to potential donors.
Music lover that he was, Mortensen never considered a musical career. He joined the Air Force after graduation, served in Vietnam (where he earned the Bronze Star) as an intelligence-briefing officer for General William Westmoreland, and spent 28 years in the reserves. But even as his career soared—after active duty, he worked in railroad management, eventually ascending to the presidency of Merchants Despatch Transportation Corp., a subsidiary of Conrail—he never forgot his days in the glee club under choral director F. Austin “Soup” Walter.
By the early ’80s, Walter had retired and graduate students were running the glee club. In 1992, to remedy that, Mortensen brought together a group of glee club alumni, who raised funds to endow a director’s chair. Ten years later, he established a fellowship for a doctoral student in choral conducting. He chairs the Glee Club Advisory Committee and the Mason Gross Advancement Council, and in 2003, he was elected president of the Glee Club Alumni Association. “Bob’s long-time support of the choral program has enriched the Rutgers experience for hundreds of young men,” says George Stauffer, the dean of Mason Gross.
And then, of course, there’s Mortensen Hall. “Like so many projects,” says Mortensen, “it just sort of materialized.” He’d been talking with Philip Furmanski, then executive vice president for academic affairs, about the university’s capital campaign when suddenly he found himself saying he would commit a million dollars to a brick-and-mortar project at the arts school.
His enthusiasm should have already been evident from Mortensen’s lifelong dedication to music. In addition to supporting Rutgers’ vocal programs, he’s on the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra and is president of the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Singers. “I’ve always thought,” he says, “that the human voice was an instrument of equal or greater value to any other”—inspiring words from a man with a long history of putting his money where his mouth is.