Pitt's Nationality Rooms director, 91, lives, works a multicultural life
Friends and colleagues largely agree: E. Maxine Bruhns is one of the most interesting human beings they ever met.
She just celebrated her 91st birthday and is entering her 50th year as the still very active director of the University of Pittsburgh's Nationality Rooms and its Intercultural Exchange programs, which have enabled more than 1,000 students to study abroad.
Bruhns has traveled to at least 83 countries, living in Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Austria, Germany, Greece, the Jordanian sector of Jerusalem, Lebanon and Iran, under the Shah. These days, she lives in Oakland where she walks to work in good weather.
She has met and interacted with historic figures and world leaders, including the Dalai Lama and Dag Hammarskjold, secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 to '61. In 1964, Bruhns visited Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his famed hospital in Gabon, Africa, taking him seeds and honey from Denmark.
She taught English to Buddhist monks in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, perfected her French while living in Vietnam and studied Farsi while teaching English at the U.S. Information Center in Tehran. Bruhns completed her masters degree in psychology at American University of Beirut while learning Arabic.
The West Virginia native, who is a distant relative of Edgar Allan Poe, studied Greek and learned Greek dancing in Athens; acted in American theater in Europe and Asia; was an editor for McGraw Hill in New York City; and had her photo published in Life magazine, dancing in Paris.
She worked for CARE, the humanitarian organization, in Cambodia; and, in Linz, Austria, she was employed by the U.S. Army Transportation Corps.
Citizen of the world
Growing up in Grafton, W.Va., Eleanor Maxine Moose — saddled with, but embracing, the nickname “Moosey” through high school — used to wonder what “the world out there” might be like.
“I didn't expect to find out so thoroughly,” she says, as Chloey the parrot squawks for her attention.
She remembers those childhood days as a self-described “hillbilly,” a term she still uses proudly to honor her roots, when her world was centered on her pet pitbull, the chickens she raised and the two piglets her mother won in a hog-calling contest.
Everything changed the day she stood beside the grand piano at a sorority house at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt talk about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A few months later, she left school to work in an aircraft factory in Maryland that produced B-26 bomber wings for the war effort.
“My world really expanded right then,” she says.
In 1946, while attending Ohio State University, she met and married the love of her life, German refugee Fred Bruhns, a future Pitt professor who immigrated to America in 1941 after serving two years in a German prison for anti-Nazi activity. He joined the U.S. Army, receiving a battlefield commission as an officer in military intelligence in Italy.
“He told the truth,” she says. “He said ‘If you marry me, I warn you that you will have to travel.' ”
Fred Bruhns, with Maxine at his side, became an expert in resettling refugees across four continents, working for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, among other organizations.
Maxine Bruhns says her husband's greatest challenge, one that he accomplished, came when he was asked to resettle more than 800,000 Vietnamese to South Vietnam.
The couple donated more than $2 million to Pitt, funding international scholarships and other programs, including Pitt's European Union Center of Excellence. Fred Bruhns died at 90 in 2006.
“The places they lived and people they knew make them seem like characters in a book,” says Terry Brown, executive director of gift giving at the university.
“At the gathering of (study abroad) scholarships, Maxine will say something to the student in the language of the country they will visit, no matter where it is,” Brown says. “If Martians landed, it would not surprise me if Maxine greeted them in their native language.”
Bringing the world home
“I'm the luckiest person in Pittsburgh,” Bruhns says. “I survived all these different moves with no tragedies and learning not to hate but appreciate the culture in which I was living. I brought that back with me and found this marvelous job where I can use those experiences. My job connects me with so many different cultures, nations and people.”
Her own heritage includes Scottish, Irish, English, French, Dutch “and maybe a little Indonesian.”
She met with the Dalai Lama backstage at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall when he visited Pittsburgh, seeking and receiving his blessing for the plans for the Indian Nationality Room. When security officers suggested it might be best instead for her to wait outside his passing vehicle, and his window could be lowered for him to look at the plans, Bruhns said she did not think a “drive-by blessing” would be appropriate.
She says her office is one of most interesting and diverse places on campus, and she continues to find motivation in the variety of experiences and interactions it provides. Bruhns has no desire to voluntarily cease working, hoping to have at least five more years at her job so she can oversee completion of the latest Nationality Rooms. Since she never had children, she considers the rooms, which she has expanded from 19 to 30 since 1965, her legacy.
“I never thought about retiring. I know at this point I better start thinking about it,” she says.
She continues to embrace life with boundless energy, still on a quest to learn and contribute even more. Self-reliant and, she says, in good health, Bruhns begins her day at 3:30 a.m., listening to international news on BBC and other outlets and using the treadmill, weights and other exercise in her fitness regime before leaving for work at 7.
“Every morning, she greets us in a foreign language, then she teaches us the correct response,” says her assistant Maryann Sivak.
The YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh, in honoring her with its Tribute to Women Award in 2004, hailed her as “an ambassador of Pittsburgh to the rest of the world.”
Bruhns says her life and career have taught her to “be flexible. Don't turn down any opportunity — whether it is travel, study, a career — that enlarges your human perspective, the more international the better for a broader view.”
Bruhns remains “gracious, feisty and driven,” one of the strongest and steadiest links between Pitt and the local ethnic communities, says Christine Metil of Squirrel Hill, who has known her for 39 years,
The rooms, on the first and third floors of the Cathedral of Learning, encourage interest in learning more about the world and about ourselves, says Metil, administrator of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Pitt.
“It is the story of the city,” Bruhns says. “You will see part of your culture. Everybody comes from somewhere. They are definitely a gift from the communities.”
More than 20,000 people pay annually to tour the rooms — which are mini-cultural museums, as well as working classrooms — and thousands more experience them at events and as students.
“There is a lasting good that results from the early exposure of these young people to other cultures and to the fundamental value of diversity,” says Mark Nordenberg, Pitt's chancellor emeritus, now chair of the university's Institute of Politics.
He sees Bruhns as an “extraordinarily knowledgeable and deeply committed” person who has built many important bridges between Pittsburgh and other parts of the world and who has added immensely to the global understanding of the people of this region.
Though she honors the past, Bruhns does not live in it.
“I try to see the future and work toward that,” she says. “I know this building is a historic monument and the rooms will be maintained as long as it stands. I have to make them authentic.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Words of praise
• Dr. Etsuro Motoyama, chairman of the Japanese room, in nomination for the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Service to the university: “Maxine is a legend in her own time. She has a deep understanding and respect for many diverse cultures through her personal experiences, which made her uniquely suited as director of the program.”
• Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing local women whose work has had a global impact: “If you name a country in the world, she has been there. And she has not only been there, she probably has a deep appreciation for the culture and can understand the subtleties of the nation and what makes it unique.”
• Janet Carlisle, Lithuanian room chairwoman: “I admire her energy, perspective on life and continued passion for her work at 91. She helped make the Nationality Rooms one of Pittsburgh's jewels. This past Christmas I saw her take part in the African American drummers' invitation to dance. I thought, ‘Wow! At her age, she's still loving her work, and she's dancing. What an inspiration she is!' ”
• Mary Doreza, Greek room committee member and director of the Grecian Odyssey Dancers: “She is absolutely incredible. She recognized the changing population in Pittsburgh and made every effort to have it represented.”
• Laurence Glasco, Pitt history professor: “Maxine Bruhns is the person here who has touched me the most, personally and professionally. She impressed me with her knowledge of African culture and her desire to portray it accurately and respectfully. She has earned the love, respect and admiration of the entire African Heritage Classroom committee. Her support was unflinching and crucial.”
• Karen Yee, chair of the Chinese room: “She is a woman of the world with an ability to bring people of different ethnicities together and work together.”
• Jennie-Lynn Knox, chair of the Irish room: “Learning, seeking, soaking all the culture and knowledge in and then bringing all of this to the university! It truly is hard for me to put into words how amazing this woman, mentor, friend is. She has helped put the University of Pittsburgh Nationality Rooms on the map. “
• Dr. Sang Park, Korean room co-chair: “Without her genuine love and respect for all ethnic groups, it could not be possible to accomplish this goal of (establishing the rooms). Her work has touched many lives in local as well as international communities. She is an extraordinary life-long warrior for Pitt.”
• Fay Lauro. Pitt stewardship coordinator: “These beautiful rooms, and the Nationality Rooms Scholarships Program, celebrate and build upon the multiculturalism which is integral to our city's history and are in part Maxine's legacy to us all.”