She is The Keeper of the Nations

E. Maxine Bruhns has worked with the University of Pittsburgh's Nationality Rooms for 50 years -- and at age 91, she shows no sign of slowing down.

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photos by martha rial

E. Maxine Bruhns brushes her hand over a photograph album, one of several in her office that hold mementos from her many years of living and traveling abroad.

“These are the Rosemans,” she says, pointing to a picture taken in Cambodia. “They’re the reason we came to Pittsburgh [in 1965].”

Alvin Roseman, associate dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and his wife, Edith, had been friends of Bruhns and her husband, Fred C. Bruhns. Both couples had traveled the world when Alvin and Fred worked with the U.S. State Department, USAID and other international agencies; Alvin worked as Fred’s USAID mission chief in Cambodia.

“Alvin said, ‘Fred, why don’t you come [to Pitt] and teach, and we’ll find something for Maxie to do,’” Bruhns remembers. “And they did.”

What then seemed to be a simple beginning would become a 50-year career. That “something to do” meant working in the office that governed the then-19 Nationality Rooms in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, a job fitting for a world traveler with a love for and understanding of international cultures.

​Bruhns became director of the rooms later that year. Her background has made her a perfect keeper of the Nationality Rooms Program, which was established in 1926; most of the 29 rooms, which represent cultures from all parts of the world, also serve as working classrooms.

She’s now 91, yet her days remain busy as she celebrates her 50th anniversary at Pitt. Strict rules govern the preservation of the existing rooms as well as the process involved with establishing new rooms (a 30th is under construction, and three more have been approved) on the Cathedral’s first and third floors.

Other cities have memorials dedicated to immigrant communities, but none are like Pittsburgh’s Nationality Rooms, Bruhns says.

“I think the steel industry brought all kinds of immigrants here [who] could make a living,” she says. “You didn’t have to speak English to dig coal and run a steel mill and pour metal and things like that. I think it was the right time. Now it’s no longer a steel city, but then it was full of immigrants.”

While the city has changed over the years, Bruhns says she believes its residents today still are diverse and accepting of the rooms and people from other cultures who created them. 

“They value them,” she says.

Former Pitt Chancellor Wesley W. Posvar, who served from 1967 to 1991, once said the rooms, “more than any other single asset … epitomize the University of Pittsburgh character by melding culture, beauty and learning. In their diversity, the rooms preserve and honor our ethnic identities. Collectively, they symbolize our national unity.”

​Bruhns has preserved and expanded that legacy as the director of the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs (NRIEP). She frequently works with local ethnic communities to hold fundraising events within and outside of the Cathedral and communicates with members of committees that support each room. She also coordinates the scholarship portion of the programs, which awards about 40 total graduate and undergraduate summer study-abroad scholarships each year to University of Pittsburgh students — a large undertaking that she has significantly expanded.

In addition, she writes for the NRIEP’s quarterly newsletter, and she and her staff are preparing for the Nationality Rooms Holiday Open House — a festival she began in 1991 to celebrate the rooms’ cultures and holiday traditions every December. In recent years, it has attracted 2,500-3,000 patrons. She serves as its mistress of ceremonies, and she recounts with fondness the experience of dancing with an African drum line last year. Spending time with her is akin to taking a trip to the United Nations, and conversations are a lesson in world history and current events. 

“No day is the same,” Bruhns says. “I always have challenges, and what more could you want? And if you’re working on things that are going to be here forever, it’s a hell of a good legacy.” 

Bruhns usually rises around 4 a.m. and starts her day by listening to international news on BBC radio or a live stream of Al Jazeera America in her condominium in North Oakland. She dresses in a colorful outfit composed of clothing and jewelry she’s picked up during her travels abroad, and her assistant, Maryann Sivak, phones her shortly after 6 a.m. to go over their plans for the day. Bruhns walks to work unless the weather is bad and generally arrives at the Cathedral around 7 a.m.

On a recent morning, Bruhns descends from her office on the 12th floor and peeks into Cathedral of Learning Room 304, where construction crews are working on the Korean Heritage Room. It’s set to be installed as the 30th Nationality Room this year with a dedication planned for November.

​Bruhns enters the room and throws her hands over her head in an “o” shape. “I love you!” she calls to the Korean workers, who speak little English. They smile and raise their arms as well: “I love you!” they call back. 

“I asked somebody [who] knew Korean to tell me how to say ‘hello,’ and it was about seven syllables,” says Bruhns, who speaks Arabic, French, some German and “smatterings” of Greek and Farsi. “I went in and tried to say it the first time to the four carpenters, and one of them said, ‘Do this,’ and he put his hands up and said, ‘I love you!’”

​Bruhns marvels over their attention to detail for a few moments before moving to a neighboring room and greeting carpenters who are sanding wood boards.

After exclaiming at their progress, she makes the “o” and calls out once more, “I love you!” (“It’s fun!” she says, with a little bounce on her toes) then heads back upstairs.
On another morning, she attends a meeting in the Cathedral’s Austrian Nationality Room to discuss the construction of the Korean room. One of the room committee’s chairmen, Sang Park, is present, as are several representatives from the construction crews.

There’s one point of contention: A worker from the university’s facilities management department notes the university won’t allow donors’ names to be displayed within the room. Park argues the Korean room’s contract allows The Korea Foundation, which has donated $250,000 for construction, to be publicly thanked. He also notes that donors’ names for the Armenian room are displayed above the door.

After much back and forth, Bruhns intervenes, promising to look into the issue.

By the end of the day, she has determined the donor names on display for the Armenian room are allowed because the names are listed outside the room in a stone setting above the doorframe. The Koreans will be allowed to do the same.

“When they hit the wall, Maxine knows how to get around the wall, to get it down,” Sivak says.

​Bruhns says she always sits in on the construction meetings as the NRIEP representative.

“Sometimes I’m needed,” she says simply.

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