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Pittsburgh Profiles: Maxine Bruhns – Bringing the World to Pittsburgh

Maxine Bruhns is the director of the Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh, which is impressive in itself, but to have done so for 50 years and still be on top of her game and the world at 91 is extraordinary. A small town girl from Grafton, West Virginia, Mrs. Bruhns has made herself at home in the world, visiting more than 80 countries and becoming conversant to varying degrees in six languages. With her appreciation for other cultures and the experience of living abroad, it’s no wonder that during her illustrious career the number of Nationality Rooms has grown from 19 to 30, with three more approved for construction.

Mrs. Bruhns grew up Eleanor Maxine Moose, and self-effacingly has described herself as  a “hillbilly.” When she left home for college, she had no idea that she would become a globetrotter. She attended West Virginia Wesleyan University in Buckhannon, West Virginia, for a time until Pearl Harbor was attacked. For her, like many in the world, that event would change the course of her life. Mrs. Bruhns left college to work in an aircraft factory in Maryland.

Across the ocean in Europe, the world was also changing for Fred Bruhns. In a 2001 Center for West European Studies newsletter article, Fred Bruhns, who died in 2006, recounted: “On January 30, 1933, when Hitler came to power I was 17 years old. I was opposed to Hitler and I joined the German resistance. We published ‘illegal things,’ since Hitler immediately forbade all publications not expressing Nazi ideology. I was arrested and became a political prisoner.”

During the next few years he was detained in a series of prisons and refugee camps until he was granted a visa to attend Ohio State University. It was there in 1946, that Maxine met the love of her life, German refugee Fred Bruhns, who Maxine said told her, “If you marry me, I warn you that you will have to travel.” They married in 1946 and remained so until his death.

Fred Bruhns wasn’t lying. Prior to coming to Ohio State, he had served in the U.S. Army and then took a position with the State Department. In 1948, Maxine traveled with her husband to Austria where he worked on resettling war refugees, a field in which he became an expert. In 1950, they relocated to Beirut, Lebanon, where he studied the Palestinian refugee crises. There, Maxine earned a master’s degree. Five years later they moved to South Vietnam. The pair also worked for the U.N. High Commission on refugees in Germany and Greece and, all told, spent 15 years living abroad.

Alvin Roseman, a colleague of Fred Bruhns when he worked at the U.S. State Department and who became associate dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, encouraged Bruhns to come and teach at Pitt, saying that they would “find something for Maxine to do.”

In 1964, Fred and Maxine Bruhns returned to the United States for what she thought would be a two-year stint. That “something to do” turned out to be working in the office that oversaw the Nationality Rooms, where she subsequently became the director in 1965 and has been at the helm ever since — a position that seemed tailor-made for someone of Mrs. Bruhns’ background.

Though now in her nineties, Mrs. Bruhns has not lost her enthusiasm for her job or her love of other cultures and countries. She rises daily before dawn to catch up on news from around the world and walks, when the weather permits, from her North Oakland condominium, arriving at her office by 7 a.m.

During her lifetime, she has met dignitaries and royalty from around the globe including the Dalai Lama, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961.

The Nationality Rooms, which are working classrooms, were conceived to honor the city’s immigrant communities and what they contributed to Pittsburgh’s culture. Strict rules govern the Nationality Rooms. According to the guidelines that were originally adopted in 1926, a room must represent a nation recognized by the U.S. State Department, the period it depicts must be prior to 1787 (the founding year of the University of Pittsburgh), and it may not contain political symbols or likenesses of living persons. Mrs. Bruhns was able to have the guidelines slightly amended when they ran into a problem when the Armenian and Ukrainian rooms were proposed. At that time, Armenia and Ukraine were still part of the Soviet Union.

Mrs. Bruhns  and her husband had no children, but they have given several million dollars to Pitt, funding international scholarships for students. But her true legacy is the Nationality Rooms. She has no plans for retirement, and it will be difficult  to find someone to replace her when she does decide to step down. Maxine Bruhns was entrusted with the direction of those rooms five decades ago, and she has increased and enriched them during her tenure.  She continues to bring the world in which she felt so at home back to Pittsburgh for all Nationality Room visitors to enjoy.

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