It’s a quick 30 seconds of peppy music and a kaleidoscope of social media photos featuring fans of the 14 teams that make up the Big Ten, but there is one indisputable star: Malcolm Gunson Brown. The lifelong University of Michigan fan grins broadly under a block-M hat and over his maize-and-blue birthday cake as the music hits its crescendo — a final, triumphant, and lasting image.
That shot was taken on Brown’s 91st and final birthday in April 2018. The lifelong Michigander and retired Presbyterian minister, who at the time lived in an assisted-living facility, died that August. Weeks later, the Big Ten ad began airing during all manner of televised U-M sporting events — and never stopped. It has turned Malcolm into a bit of a folk hero, with U-M fans shouting his name in fondness when he pops up during the ad. More than two years after his death, his family still tunes in to Big Ten sports in part to see that moment.
“It was a really nice moment, and now it’s a wonderful part of his legacy,” says his eldest daughter, Deb Wallin, of Mount Pleasant, who notes Brown, a diabetic, had been especially giddy because her mother rarely allowed him such sweet treats. “The legacy is that smile and friendliness that comes across in that picture. He loved his God, he loved his family, he loved serving people, and he loved U of M.”
The photo made its way into the ad courtesy of the league’s ad firm, TeamWorks Media, which conceived of a spot titled “B1G Life” highlighting people wearing team merch from babies to teens to old age, says Robin Jentes, the Big Ten’s assistant commissioner for branding. One of the first photos they knew they had to use was the one of Brown and his cake, which had been posted on Wallin’s Instagram page with the hashtag #goblue. Wallin says she got $50 for it and then forgot about it as her father’s final months took their toll on the family.
“We really wanted to see that circle of life – babies, kids going to first games with their parents, and then we just loved that photo of Malcolm with that smile celebrating his life,” Jentes says. “There was a huge amount of posts that we went through and then narrowed them down to capture all of that. But we always saw ending the spot with him.”
They could hardly have chosen a more bona fide Wolverine. Brown, born in Detroit and raised in Muskegon, enrolled at U-M after serving in the Navy during World War II. He even marched in the Rose Bowl parade twice as a clarinet player, and at college met his future wife, Marjorie, who was a classmate. They’d been married for 68 years when Brown died.
After U-M, he attended Princeton Seminary in New Jersey, became a pastor, and served at First Presbyterian in Ann Arbor in the 1960s. Wallin remembers she and her brother sneaking into Michigan Stadium to ride their bikes around the field during that stint. Brown served at a church in Mount Pleasant for several years before closing his career in the 1980s at Covenant Presbyterian back in Ann Arbor.
“When we were kids, he would play records of the Michigan fight song so we would all march around the living room with each other,” Wallin says. “During the last months of life, he still had a record player and that would be one of the records that he would enjoy us playing for him.” (It may have been too much exposure; none of Brown’s kids or grandchildren attended U-M.)
The ad’s creators and the league knew none of that, nor that he died weeks before the spot began appearing in fall 2018. Wallin, her two sisters, and her brother decided not to say anything. “Everybody thought, ‘You know what? He was such a huge fan of U of M, he would be so happy to have that picture in the ad,’ ” Wallin says. “It also made us very happy to see the commercial and to see him smiling whenever we were watching Big Ten sports.”
Wallin, whose Instagram account is otherwise a sedate collection of sunset, flower, and cookie photos, says she always knows when the ad has popped up because new visitors stop by to like that picture or leave a comment about it. “A lot of times people are telling me this picture is on a commercial as if I have a need to be informed of that fact,” she says tartly. “But people who knew Dad often contact one of us to say, ‘We so enjoyed seeing him in the ad.’ ”
The Big Ten gang might have pulled the ad by now if not for the chaos of COVID-19 — they usually create a new spot every year — but Jentes says she’s glad it endures. “He’s such a vibrant person in that photo, and it comes across so well in our commercial,” she says. “To know his family loves seeing that spot — it’s nice to hear. It’s exactly what we hoped would happen.”