2014 Alumni Service Award recipients, Judy, AB'63, and Lester Munson, JD'67

In an interview with the Alumni Association, the Munsons prove that great acts of volunteerism may start small, but can grow exponentially.

Alumni Association: How did you two meet?

Judy and Lester: We met on a blind date in the fall of 1964 as Lester entered the law school and Judy was finishing her undergraduate work and working part-time on the campus. The date was arranged by one of Lester’s college classmates who was a student at the Graduate School of Business (now Booth). We both worked in the office of Jeff Metcalf, the dean of students at the business school. Lester was smitten, but Judy was not so sure. We married on the campus on May 8, 1965.

Alumni Association: When did you first start volunteering and what compelled you to get involved. Was it a joint decision?

Lester: Our first volunteer work for the university came on the "Parents Committee" when our older son was an undergraduate there (Lester Munson III, AB'89). We volunteered to serve on the committee and found ourselves in a call center making calls to other parents asking them to contribute to the university. The other parents making the calls were fascinating characters, and the parents we called were more generous than we expected. Many were willing to make donations even though they were struggling to pay tuition and expenses for their student.

Judy: We lived in the suburbs, an hour and a half from campus. It was not easy to volunteer for activities because of the distance. Then, one day we received a postcard asking us to participate in a fund-raising effort – parents contacting parents -- which would be opening up an entirely new fund-raising front: enlisting monetary support from the parents of current UChicago students in the College.

There were two uniquely appealing side benefits to this invitation: we would be with other parents in a “call-center” which was being made available for this purpose by a UChicago alum—and it was located in the Sears Tower, i.e., only one train ride away and less than an hour from home. And, not only would we be trained on how to approach the task, but we would be with other parents who had volunteered. Furthermore, a dinner of pizza and Coke and cookies would be provided. We were in!

It was an interesting gathering: not too large, not too small. The development staff seemed pleased with the turnout and the briefing began. Then, we were assigned to our call stations and the “to be contacted” sheets distributed to us had a few details included which gave us enough courage to place the call. What I recall most vividly was first: praying that someone would answer the phone on the other end; secondly: talking quickly enough so they wouldn’t hang up; and, thirdly, hoping the appeal was seductive enough to elicit a yes.

Now, the reality check:

When we filled out the “contact sheets” and turned them in to the staff, the results were posted on a huge poster board with tally’s to mark everyone’s progress. Everyone could see how everyone else was doing.

As the effort continued, it soon became apparent upon whom an award would be bestowed: It was Lester.

Whenever a parent picked up the phone on the other end of his call, the “script” was left far behind and laughter started emanating from the cubicle. All agreed upon the worthy purpose and as stories were shared about sports (e.g., did the parent have a son or a daughter on a UChicago team? Which one? Had they won anything yet? And would there be an awards banquet? And, should that thought be considered?) Soon, details of the team’s season produced more stories and more guffaws and then ended with a donation which then went up on the tote board. Entry after entry. The tally became embarrassingly recognizable as outstanding. We all tried to emulate the technique and, miraculously, we had some success. But not like Lester.

We took a break for the pizza and then made a few more calls but really, the evening was over. We had had a great experience at the Sears Tower. All the parents were enthusiastic and we all enjoyed being together—we were really all alike—we were all a part of the same family. The University of Chicago Parents Committee. And the next event? We could hardly wait!

Alumni Association: What has been your most memorable or favorite experience as volunteers?

Lester: It has been a joy and a privilege for me to serve as the master of ceremonies for eleven induction dinners honoring members of the university Athletics Hall of Fame. The inductees are men and women who have distinguished themselves and the university on the fields of intercollegiate athletics or have contributed to the development of athletics at the university. Each is a fascinating character both as an athlete and in their careers. The ceremony is inspiring and entertaining and provides a vivid demonstration of the pursuit of excellence at the university.

Judy: For me, it was being a part of the team which plotted to name the lobby of the Gleacher Center for Jeff Metcalf and then raised the money to get it done. It was a great idea and the outpouring of loving support from everyone we called--including, remarkably and miraculously, Byron Trott, AB'81, MBA'82—who made the tribute into a living, breathing benefit for students by launching the Metcalf Fellows initiative—was an experience unanticipated in all respects.

Jeff Metcalf was Dean of Students at the Graduate School of Business, now Booth, and he hired me to do a job in the office for 20 hours per week to keep me financially afloat while I finished my college degree, having been diverted from that objective by the chaos of the 60's on our campus (as on others). Rarely did anyone we called—all former students of the GSB or former employees of the Dean of Students Office—turn us down. But Jeff was ill and then, as the drive to enlist more donors continued, it became obvious that his condition was terminal. We could not wait. We had to get the permission for the plaque—the words and the etching of his image—secured and then crafted and then mounted and then dedicated while he was still living. And, we did it—thanks—as is always the case—to an angel who stepped forward with the medical transport vehicle and the driver and the attendants and, also, the others—some bringing champagne flutes and a chilled bottle to pop so Jeff would at least hear the sound, and, maybe even the words of the private ceremony. Only those of us who had formed the group and those who stepped forward to support this last effort—in addition to his loving and lovely wife—were standing around Jeff’s gurney in that beautiful Lobby—solemnly paying tribute to the care with which he had helped each and every one of us as we journeyed on our life’s path. Unforgettable.

Alumni Association:  How do you balance your volunteer commitments and daily personal and work-related demands?

Judy and Lester: We enjoy any opportunity that comes along and allows us to continue to be a part of the university community. The university is a critical element of our life together, and we are happy to make our various efforts one of our highest priorities. It does not seem difficult. We know that we will try to do what the university asks us to do, and we know that it will be a rewarding and inspiring experience. And we know that we can always get a burger at the Medici (followed by apple pie ala mode and Café au lait).

Alumni Association: How did you feel when you were notified that you had been selected to receive a joint 2014 Alumni Service Award?

Lester: Stunned and amazed. That is how we felt when we learned of this award. It never occurred to either of us that we were a candidate for such an honor. We had attended the awards ceremony at Rockefeller Chapel last year as part of Judy’s 50th class reunion and were enormously impressed with those who received these awards. When we realized that we were now in that group, we were humbled and amazed.

Judy: MORTIFIED! How were we to explain such a mistake on the part of the University of Chicago to our friends and fellow alums? But, yes, Lester is right—that Hall of Fame recognition event has been a centerpiece of his life from the very first moment it began. His assignment was to preside over the very first Hall of Fame Awards Ceremony at the end of the day in which the Ratner Center was opened. It was a Magnificent and Triumphant moment for the University! Very simply, a magnificent addition to everything UChicago had been building, year after year, since its founding in 1891.

Alumni Association: What would you stay to a fellow alumna/alumnus who might be on the fence about getting more involved?
Judy and Lester: Do not hesitate! We would say to all alums that they should not hesitate to join in any university effort that comes along. There is no group of people more interesting than the alumni/ae of the University of Chicago. Whatever the activity may be, the alums provide the substance and the entertainment. There is always a jolt of energy and intellectual challenge in all of these activities. You enjoy them and then you savor them for months and years to come.

Please join us in congratulating the Munsons for their dedication to the University. The 73rd Alumni Awards Ceremony will take place on Saturday, June 7 at 10:30 A.M. and is part of Alumni Weekend. The ceremony is free and open to the public.

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