Michael Brunker remembers the exact moment his life changed. It was in 1963 on his 11th birthday.
Ernie Harwell, then the Detroit Tigers’ legendary announcer, called his mother’s name in a local raffle. She won his-and-hers cars, which his father promptly sold. The 1963 Dodge Dart and Plymouth Fury helped the Brunker family move to a new neighborhood, and Brunker said it changed the trajectory of his life.
Since that day, Brunker has moved a long way from his first house on Prairie near Fenkell and Livernois. He is vice president for mission advancement at the YMCA of San Diego after serving as the executive director of the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA for 22 years, and the founder and executive director of the San Diego (Calif.) Regional Police Athletic League. His work and dedication to the community and serving others earned him the title Mr. San Diego 2019 by the San Diego Rotary.
His career, too, has roots that go back to his childhood.
In 1968, while attending St. James High School in Ferndale, a speaker came to talk to the students about living the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“This young African-American man came from a local business group and stood before us and he said something that really resonated,” Brunker said. “He talked about love, not hate; light not darkness and fulfilling that vision. That resonated with me.”
Brunker said he held himself to those ideals and still uses them to focus himself today.
While attending University of Detroit where he earned a Political Science degree, Brunker worked as a custodian at St. Bede’s Church in Southfield, where he had his first opportunity to give back. A Catholic Youth Organization basketball game was being played in the gym and when the team got behind early on the coach, who knew Brunker had played basketball in high school and at University of Detroit, called for Brunker.
“It was half-time of the first game of the season. They were losing pretty badly so the coach sent for me to see if I had any pointers,” he said. “I ended up coaching the team for the rest of the season and won the CYO title that year.”
He said he got involved not to win titles, but to work with the children. “I’m a product of those kind of services and mentors.”
Brunker said he was influenced by many great leaders, including his neighbors, Melvin Franklin of the Motown group The Temptations, and Dick Lane of the Detroit Lions. It was his father, however, who had the greatest influence.
“The wisest person I knew was my father and he never graduated from high school,” Brunker said. “He taught me to be thankful for what you have because nobody owes you anything. He told me to work hard and, when it comes to taking advice, to eat the fish and throw away the bones.”
After several years coaching basketball at various levels in Detroit, including a state championship at Birmingham Brother Rice in 1974, University of Detroit and the Detroit Pistons, Brunker moved his family across the country for a basketball coaching job at San Diego State under Smokey Gaines, whom he had worked with at University of Detroit. The team enjoyed five consecutive winning seasons and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1985, but two losing seasons followed and Brunker knew change was on the horizon.
“They sent us to the NCAA tournament and the coaches’ convention, which is where coaches look for jobs. I had offers to continue coaching but it all meant leaving San Diego where I had a young family,” he said.
Instead of going to the NCAA championship game that night, Brunker sat in his hotel room contemplating his next move. “I just made the decision that I wanted to do something else that would reflect what I really loved doing. I decided to go off on my own. I wanted to get involved with AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) or CYO or PAL (Police Athletic League) — those were the things that helped protect me from myself in Detroit.”
When he arrived in San Diego, Brunker was surprised to discover there were no similar programs for kids. So he helped create them.
“It’s important to listen to the call and if it is a match for your personal mission in life, then you do it. I spend my Heaven doing good on Earth,” said Brunker.
“I’m looking at the opportunities we have to be inspirational. We see those opportunities in front of us every day. The pressure is making sure these people living in at-risk conditions don’t just hear us talking about doing things. The mentors I’ve had in my life have made a difference, and I truly believe our best work is yet to come,” Brunker said.
After beginning the Police Athletic League in San Diego, he was contacted by the YMCA to gauge his interest in serving as the executive director of the San Diego County location. Brunker said he had no history with the YMCA, but when he learned the mission was to help people through the development of the spirit, mind and body, he was interested.
Brunker said through his work and that of its staff and volunteers, the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA moved to a brand new $40-million facility with 200 people on payroll. He was recently named the YMCA of San Diego County’s vice president for mission and advancement.
“I think there is so much involved with being a professional manager,” he said. “You have to be able to communicate, control, plan, organize, staff and lead with love accordingly. I didn’t do it alone. The team I’ve had were respected and appreciated for their work.”
At the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA, Brunker said he felt the greatest accomplishment was growing the team and employing people from San Diego’s most underserved areas. He said he enjoyed seeing young kids who have been served by the program coming back with their kids, spiritually grounded and doing great things in their lives.
“Jackie Robinson said, ‘A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives,’” Brunker said. “I’ve been blessed to carry this responsibility every day for the past 22 years. . In his new position, Brunker said he will help the YMCA serve more kids and families.
Brunker was recently honored by the Rotary Club of San Diego as the 2019 Mr. San Diego.
“If I’ve ever felt uncomfortable about anything, it was getting that call to find out I’d be Mr. San Diego,” Brunker said. “Initially, I felt bad about this because that is not why I do what I do. Then I prayed upon it. There are two things that came to mind. The Lord said, ‘Be thankfulfor the gift of gratitude’ and also ‘let all know it’s ecause of you.’ I truly believe I am where I am today because of everyone who helped me growing up—tracing all the way back to Detroit.”
And he reveres the higher power at work in his life.
“I’m returning the glory to God,” he said. “I think if we can all do that, it can make a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”