Between the world and E. Maxine Bruhns: Lessons from a life of advocacy

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Courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh

E. Maxine Bruhns served as the Nationality Rooms director for 54 years before retiring in January.

By Benjamin Nigrosh, News Editor

Pioneer. Diplomat. Philanthropist. Self-proclaimed West Virginia hillbilly. Only Maxine Bruhns could have held all of those titles and met each one so perfectly, Maryann Sivak said.

“She was very determined. If she set her mind on a goal, she made sure she got it. She jumped over the hoops to achieve it,” Sivak, Bruhns’ assistant since 2012, said. “She wanted to enrich each and every individual no matter who they were.”

Despite Bruhns’ passing earlier this month at the age of 96, she continues to enrich the Pittsburgh community with the work she completed during her 54-year tenure as the director of Pitt’s Nationality Rooms.

Even after Bruhns’ retirement in January, Sivak would call her most days of the week to answer Bruhns’ questions about what was happening around the department. On those calls, Sivak said, Bruhns’ voice still carried the same enthusiasm as the effortlessly “radiant” woman in the long, flowing skirt matched with a brightly colored top and large belt she knew and loved.

“She took it as her mission to educate the community,” Sivak said. “It was not just her profession, she lived it.

Maxine Bruhns — originally E. Maxine Moose of Grafton, West Virginia — landed in Pittsburgh in 1965 with her husband Fred Bruhns, who passed away in 2008. When the couple arrived in the City, Fred was finishing his Ph.D. and beginning a teaching career at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Not long thereafter, Maxine was taken under the wing of Ruth Crawford Mitchell, the first and only other director of the Nationality Rooms before Bruhns herself.

After marrying Fred in 1946, the couple spent the following 15 years traveling around the world together for Fred’s work with the International Refugee Organization. While traveling — living in places such as Lebanon, Jerusalem, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Greece and Gabon — Bruhns taught English, learned the native languages and acted in local theaters.

According to Larry Glasco, an associate professor in the department of history, the signature bohemian flare that followed Bruhns was something she shared with her husband, making for a “beautiful” couple.

“It looked like it was out of a 1930s movie, the two of them together. She was gorgeous and he was so handsome,” Glasco said. “You could see they were both people of style and class, as well as sincerity.”

During Bruhns’ time at Pitt, 12 new Nationality Rooms were built, including the Israel heritage, Armenian, African heritage, Ukranian, Austrian and Japanese rooms. By the time of Bruhns’ retirement, there were 31 total rooms. She wrote and narrated each of the English language tapes that can be played in each of the rooms that detail its design and history.

According to Michael Walter, the Nationality Rooms tour coordinator, one of Bruhns’ favorite parts of meeting new visitors was their shock when they inevitably matched the soft, dulcet voice on the recordings to her uniquely attired character.

“When visitors would come up, she would engage them and say, ‘That’s my voice on the tape,’” Walter said. “It gave a living nature to it. It wasn’t an actor who was hired to do those narrations.”

That’s just who Bruhns was, Walter said — personable and inviting, always eager to spark up a conversation about the preservation and celebration of heritage. That’s because, to Bruhns, they weren’t just rooms for tourists to visit or students to study in, Walter said. Bruhns saw them as a “living laboratory of immersion.”

“Anybody that goes into the rooms, she believed — a young child on a tour, a Pitt student studying in them — they have the opportunity, by osmosis at the very least, to learn something about other cultures that made up Pittsburgh,” Walter said.

Belkys Torres, Pitt’s executive director of global engagement, said it was Bruhns’ experience abroad that sparked her love for celebrating world cultures.

“She really understood on a personal and intellectual level how immersing yourself in a community changes your perspective and appreciation for others and the world,” Torres said. “She was always trying to provide that opportunity for others as well.”

After settling in Pittsburgh with her husband, the pace of Bruhns’ life slowed considerably. But she was not one to sit still for long, and her intellectual curiosity took her across the cultural boundaries of Pittsburgh and opened up the worlds brimming from every neighborhood, Torres said.

“She was surrounded by a city that had really strong ethnic communities that had such a deep appreciation for their own culture and a passion for continuing those traditions and trying to make sure that heritage wasn’t lost over the years,” Torres said.

Besides for her travels, Bruhns’ pride in her own indigenous heritage inspired her work in the preservation of world cultures, feeling she lived in a “hyphenated space.” Just as Bruhns was the culmination of all of the titles she was known by to the people close to her, she also occupied a vague middle ground between her indigenous roots and her learned American culture, Torres said.

In part, the Nationality Rooms were Bruhns’ way of casting a line to others who felt they occupied a similar space, giving them a place to celebrate and remember their own heritages, Torres said. It was Bruhns’ way of inviting others into the hyphenated space with her.

“I can only surmise that part of it is that those of us that come from immigrant backgrounds and communities have a bit of a sense of urgency about protecting that culture just because we live in a country where assimilation is so prevalent and is expected,” Torres said.

According to Cristina Lagnese, the Nationality Rooms scholarship administrator and head of committee relations, it was often surprising the ways Bruhns found herself amid the hyphenated space dichotomy. On more than one occasion, Lagnese said she found herself asking, “Maxine, how many pairs of leather pants do you own?” while typing up an email that Bruhns wrote out in longhand because she didn’t use a computer.

Afterward, Lagnese said, the emails would have to be printed for Bruhns to edit by hand.

This nature came in part out of her West Virginia roots, or “hillbilly” roots as Bruhns liked to call them, Walter said. When visitors from Westmoreland County, Virginia, came to the Cathedral and took a tour of the Nationality Rooms, Walter said, Bruhns met the students in the opulent foyer and greeted them the only way she knew how to greet a fellow Virginian — with a hog call.

According to Walter, the kids understood right away how she was calling them to attention.

“People come to a realization of what the rooms mean for them in their own time,” Walter said. “Maxine loved the fact that we had elementary school groups coming because it meant that children were being introduced to geography, world cultures, languages, different architecture, anything that could inspire somebody.”

In this way, the Nationality Rooms became Bruhns’ oasis away from the fast-paced, academic environment of the University, Glasco said. She was always relaxed, Glasco said, occupying the same gentle ease with colleagues as one would with friends.

“She never made you feel inadequate or that she knew more than you,” Glasco said. “She was always quiet, helpful, gracious [and] generous with her time and knowledge.”

The rooms were not an academic feat for Bruhns, Glasco said. Though the rooms themselves hold classes, they were so many canvases where Pittsburgh’s citizens, and Bruhns herself, could express cultural pride, Glasco said.

“It’s not Pitt that’s creating the rooms,” Galsco said. “It really gave people a chance to create a room that expresses their own idea of how they think of themselves culturally and ethnically and how they want the rest of the world to see them as well.”

Bruhns did not want to use her position strictly to advance academia, Walter said — she wanted to give others the opportunity to commemorate their own heritage and honor others along the way.

“That’s what Maxine wanted to share with people — that they could find the familiar in themselves with the unique that’s in the rooms,” Walter said.

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