John Lenkey climbing the world’s highest peaks 50 years ago


John Lenkey III holds Rutgers and U.S. flags atop of Mount Fujiyama in Japan, inset with Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay 1967. In the spring, Lenkey visited the university archives in Alexander Library at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, where some of his flags reside in the collection.

Bob George (right)

Half a century ago, John Lenkey III wanted to find a memorable way to celebrate Rutgers’ bicentennial in 1966. Through his membership in the Rutgers Club of Los Angeles, Lenkey UCNB’55 “heard rumors that RU Navy men were going to surface a submarine at the North Pole and place a flag there,” he says. Why not join them, he thought, and plant flags on some of the highest mountain peaks in  the world?

Lenkey decided to tackle several major mountains in less than a year. He had some climbing experience, mainly in the Catskills during college, but nothing on the scale of what he was envisioning for himself. “I said, I want to see the world, and here’s a way to also publicize Rutgers,” he recalls. He trained by walking 34 flights of stairs at work four times a day.

His first trek, in 1966, was a 7,310-foot climb to the top of Mount Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest mountain. On Mount Fuji in Japan, he used crampons and an ice axe to reach the summit. Not every expedition was a success. Because of dangerous conditions on Mount Everest, he enlisted the help of another climber to plant the flag atop the world’s highest peak. And after Lenkey failed to summit the Matterhorn twice because of bad weather, his cousin Ronald Panko RC’71 eventually triumphed. Lenkey also summited Grossvenediger in Austria and planted the flag at a 23,000-foot-plateau on Mount Kangchenjunga in Nepal.

Along with a flag for each peak, Lenkey brought an extra one on all his adventures and collected signatures on it. The flag bears the autographs of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first climbers to scale Mount Everest; Rutgers family descendant Nicholas G. Rutgers RC’50; and fellow climbers and well-wishers.

Lenkey presented the signed flag to Rutgers in 1988 for safekeeping in the university archives in Alexander Library at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. During Alumni Weekend in April, the flag was taken out of storage and Lenkey got to see it again.

“I bless Rutgers every day for upping my life,” says Lenkey, who formerly served as vice president at Robertshaw Controls and is now president  of Aquatemp Global. Rutgers “took me from the heavily accented son of Hungarian immigrants to  an erudite, Concorde-flying, Fortune 500 company vice president.”