Maxine Bruhns

Written by Grace Kelly
Photos by Nicole Gye
March 29, 2015

Maxine Bruhns is a fantastical woman. She has lived in Cambodia and Lebanon, feasted with Bedouins and offered her hand for a kiss from the former head of state of Poland.

In the last five of her more than nine decades, Bruhns has been the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Nationality Rooms and its Intercultural Exchange programs. She also spearheaded the addition of 10 new rooms.

In her office, Bruhns lounges in a blue chair, legs crossed and arms dangling, clanking with lines of silver bangles and fingers studded with rings. Surrounding her is a swirl of papers and sculptures, and a petite sand garden sits on a black obsidian table.

Her adventures are marked by trinkets, small reminders of the extraordinary experiences she’s had in her 91 years. But scars have scored her colorful life.

On Bruhns’ knee is a scar from a cow’s bite, and she jokes that she might be the only person in the world who’s been bitten by the gentle bovine. She pats her knee and explains, feeling sorrier for the cow, as it had to bear her weight.

“My uncle put me on his cow, and she swung her head up to get what she thought was a fly and nicked my knee,” she said.

Another scar cuts deeper.

Bruhns is in a hospital room, and the neon lights buzz ominously. It is Oct. 4, 1975. She stands over her father in his hospital bed, an oxygen mask on his face, his eyes heavy. The medical staff members decide they’ll put him in a chair to make him more comfortable.

As staff members lift her father, he grabs Bruhns’ hand, panicking, and says, “Maxine, I’m going to let you have it!”

His eyes close as he descends into the chair. Thinking he had fallen asleep, Bruhns returned home. The phone rang 45 minutes later — Bruhns’ father had passed away in that moment of movement.

“He thought I had lifted him up, and he squeezed my hand so hard that he left a bruise,” Maxine says, holding her hand to demonstrate.

She loved her father, which makes the memory stick with her in all its pain and rigid reality.

“The unexpectedness of it stayed in my mind. He blamed me ... I guess that makes it memorable,” she said.