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Blugolds who found love as students now find joy in making UW-Eau Claire dream come true

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Glen Mabie (video)

When John and Carolyn Sonnentag last called Eau Claire home, they were newlyweds living in a small trailer, both working part-time jobs to make ends meet as they finished their studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

In those days, John would bring Carolyn to campus every morning, go to his job driving a school bus and return to campus in time for class. When her classes were done each day, Carolyn would walk to her job at a nearby insurance office, where John would pick her up after his afternoon bus route. Like many Blugolds, they spent their evenings studying, doing laundry, exploring the city or, often, sitting in Zorn Arena cheering on the Blugold basketball team.

“Every memory is a good memory,” John Sonnentag says of the couple’s time together in Eau Claire.

When they graduated, they sold the trailer and headed back to Marathon, where John — and later Carolyn — joined the Sonnentag’s family business selling concrete and landscape products.

Never could the young couple have imagined then that 50-plus years later they would be back on UW-Eau Claire’s campus, this time announcing gifts of land and monies to their alma mater totaling nearly $70 million.

Never would they have guessed that someday they’d be the instigator, leader and primary funder of a $107 million public-private building project that will replace Zorn Arena — where they watched all those basketball games during their college years — with a new multiuse facility, creating the largest indoor events venue in northwestern Wisconsin.

“Our business has been very successful over the years, so it feels good to do this,” Carolyn Sonnentag says of their contributions to a project that will impact the lives of current and future Blugolds, as well as people living throughout the northwest region. “We’ve helped other situations, but this is a big one.”

While they only lived in Eau Claire for a short time more than five decades ago, it feels right, John Sonnentag says, to do what they can to give back to a college and community that gave them so much.

Celebrating a record-setting gift

John and Carolyn Sonnentag stand with the members of the Blugold men's and women's basketball teams

John and Carolyn Sonnentag stand with the members of the Blugold men's and women's basketball teams after announcing that they will give UW-Eau Claire nearly $70 million in land and monies to build the County Materials Complex. (Photo by Bill Hoepner)

Earlier this week, members of the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the university’s national championship volleyball team joined campus and community leaders to announce that the Sonnentags will donate the entire $40 million in philanthropic monies needed to bring the project to life, a gift that brings their total support for the initiative to about $70 million.

Their gift — the largest in the history of the university and among the largest gifts ever to any regional public university in the country — means construction will begin early in 2022 on the County Materials Complex. The facility, which will open in 2024, will create a space for people from the university and community to gather for everything from sporting events to conventions to concerts and performances.

“This is truly a milestone day in the history of this community, this university and this state,” Chancellor James Schmidt said as event attendees gave the Sonnentags multiple standing ovations.

During the event, Tommy Thompson, interim president of the UW System, said when he was Wisconsin’s governor, he signed many contracts with County Materials. The Sonnentags, he said, are great builders and manufacturers, but also people of “the highest ethics” who live their lives by “doing and giving.”

“What a great love affair,” Thompson said of the Sonnentags. “Coming from Athens and Marathon to this great campus and falling in love. They have a love for each other and their family, but also for this university.”

Their love story now is making a “dream come true for the university and city,” Thompson said.

Never in her wildest dreams did she expect 100% of the philanthropy for the project to come from just one donor, though she shouldn’t be surprised, given the Sonnentags’ incredible generosity, says Kimera Way, president of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation.

“John and Carolyn are among the most inspirational alumni and donors with whom I’ve had the honor of working,” Way says. “Theirs is a partnership we all should endeavor to emulate. I long have admired their clarity of purpose regarding their philanthropy and their singular commitment to their values. Once we were able to present them with a project that reflected their vision and goals, they were ‘all in.’”

Describing the Sonnentags as “guiding lights,” Schmidt says the couple has “encouraged us to make the most of this opportunity and remained steadfast in their vision for this community.”

A vision for campus, community

While for many years County Materials had a business in Eau Claire just a mile from UW-Eau Claire, the Sonnentags never set out to be change-makers on campus or in the Eau Claire community.

Their inspiration and vision for what has grown into an incredible project really began 20 years ago with a modest request from the city of Eau Claire. Could the city build a bike trail along the Chippewa River on County Materials' Menomonie Street property?

Not only did John Sonnentag agree to donate the land to the people of Eau Claire, but he climbed on his bulldozer to construct the trail himself.

“It was a Saturday morning, and I was on the dozer building the trail. I could see the beautiful scenic views of the Chippewa River,” John Sonnentag says. “I never forgot that breathtaking picture. Many years later, I became aware of a plan for UW-Eau Claire to replace Zorn Arena with a bigger and more modern events center and that gave me an idea.”

His idea was to purchase the land adjacent to his business, pay to relocate the businesses, and donate all 25 acres of riverfront property to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, giving the university a site for a much-needed off-campus event center.

So, in 2014, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation announced that the Sonnentags had given the university the riverfront land as well as monies totaling a then record-setting $10 million.

At that point, the Sonnentags thought their work on the project was completed.

However, in the years since the land was donated, the project has taken many twists and turns, much like the Chippewa River, Carolyn Sonnetag notes. The Sonnentags have been involved every step of the way.

New partners, opportunities

As planning and fundraising got underway, new partners joined the project, which now includes UW-Eau Claire, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Mayo Clinic Health System, the city of Eau Claire and Visit Eau Claire.

So, what began as an event center has grown into the County Materials Complex, which includes a 5,000-person-capacity Sonnentag Event Center and the 100-yard John and Carolyn Sonnentag Field House. The complex also will house a center for health and wellbeing, facilities for the Blugold men’s and women’s basketball teams and athletic department offices. In addition, Mayo Clinic Health System will construct a sports medicine and imaging clinic in the complex.

The facility will be at the center of a growing sports and recreation district along Menomonie Street that includes Carson Park, the Hobbs Municipal Ice Center and the Menard YMCA Tennis Center.

In the years since they donated the land, the project has grown into something far beyond anything he envisioned, John Sonnentag says. The partnerships with the city, Mayo Clinic Health System and others offer incredible new opportunities for students and community members, he says.

“It’s a better plan today with all the people involved,” John Sonnentag says. “It started as an event center and now the event center is just one of many things in the complex. Every day I hear new people jumping in with ideas about restaurants and other things. People want to contribute; they want to be part of it. So, by the time it’s built, there will be a lot more than what we saw today. And that’s very exciting. I’m very happy where we are today and where it’s going.”

The Sonnentags are especially happy that the Chippewa River Trail — the couple’s first gift to the people of Eau Claire — will be incorporated into the County Materials Complex.

“It’s going to be a beautiful area; it’s going to be marvelous,” John Sonnentag says.

An unexpected legacy

John Sonnentag laughs as he shares his often-told story of sitting in his college history class many years ago and seeing his future wife for the first time. Still in high school, Carolyn was touring UW-Eau Claire with her girlfriends.

“It was love at first sight,” John says of Carolyn, who grew up in Athens, just 21 miles from John’s hometown of Marathon.

Fortunately for him, Carolyn came to UW-Eau Claire the following year. Once they met, it didn’t take long before they “just were a couple,” John says. They were married in August 1965, returning to Eau Claire two weeks later to continue their studies.

John Sonnetag graduated in 1966 with degrees in business administration and history, and Carolyn Sonnentag graduated in 1967 with a degree in medical technology.

They both loved the campus, and enjoyed the Eau Claire community, often wondering over the years what their lives might have been like had they stayed in the Chippewa Valley instead of returning to central Wisconsin after college.

Still, they never set out to build a legacy in Eau Claire, or really, anywhere.

“We put this land deal together on Menomonie Street because UW-Eau Claire is landlocked, so they couldn’t build a big event center to replace Zorn,” John Sonnentag says. “So, I thought if I would bring 25 acres together, that would be a nice place for them to build it. My job was to accumulate the land and donate it to the university. I never thought of it as leaving a legacy.”

Several years later, as the event center project slowly moved forward, John Sonnentag became more involved in the building plans, eventually “jumping in with both feet,” he says. They began pushing harder to move the project along because “we want to see it happen in our lifetime,” he says.

The Sonnentags’ patience through seven years of twists and turns, “inspires me to deliver a finished project that will not only serve the university and the community, but honor John and Carolyn,” Way says. “I am very much looking forward to the next couple years as we work on completing the event center and field house as a tribute to the Sonnentags and their remarkable generosity.”

With that in mind, the County Materials Complex will include the Sonnentag Event Center and the John and Carolyn Sonnentag Field House, recognizing the couple’s generosity and commitment to the campus and community.

“The designs are out and they’re putting our names on all this stuff,” John Sonnentag says with a laugh. “It’s good, but that’s not why we did this. We did this because we saw how important it was to the university and the people of Eau Claire to have this facility.”

Having their names on the buildings is nice, but seeing how excited current Blugolds are about the project means more than anything else, Carolyn Sonnentag says.

“You can see how excited the student-athletes are today,” Carolyn Sonnentag says. “They just want to stop time now so they can play in the new facility. Our boys were in sports, and we’ve been sitting on bleachers all our lives. So, that sporting part of all this means a lot to me. Seeing the student-athletes here and excited today means so much.”

The future is here

During this week’s announcement, Way noted that a 1971 Sports Illustrated magazine featuring the Blugold men’s basketball team stated that in “the near future” the team would be playing in a large new arena, but for now would “make do” playing in Zorn Arena.

Fifty years later, the “near future” has finally arrived, Way says.

“Today, I can unequivocally state the future is here,” Way said. “In 2024, the Blugolds will be playing in a brand new 5,000-seat-capacity event center that will replace Zorn Arena.”

Since the student-athletes gifted the Sonnentags lifetime passes to Blugold sporting events, as well as basketball jerseys signed by the players, Carolyn Sonnentag says they are ready to cheer on the Blugolds in the Sonnentag Event Center in 2024, just as they’d done decades ago in Zorn Arena.