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.
Editor’s Note: Bruhns died July 17, 2020, six months after announcing her retirement.
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.
A native of Grafton, W.Va., Bruhns (nee Moose) says she and her husband were happy to come to Pittsburgh, fairly close to her parents, after spending more than 15 years living abroad and working with war refugees and USAID in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Fred, a native of Germany, was a teenager when Hitler came to power in 1933. He started delivering anti-Nazi literature on his bicycle until the Gestapo caught him and sent him to prison for two years, releasing him in 1939.
He left Germany and traveled to France, but after the Germans invaded that country, he landed in an internment camp for German intellectuals. In 1941, Fred received news that a visa had come through, enabling him to travel to the United States and join the U.S. Army. But he had no money for the trip.
“The International Rescue Committee paid his train fare and boat fare all the way to New York City,” Maxine Bruhns says. “I give them $2,000 a year because I feel they saved his life.”
Fred and Maxine met while studying at The Ohio State University and were married from 1946 until his death in 2008.
After serving in military intelligence in World War II, Fred Bruhns first worked in occupied Austria resettling European refugees and later in the Middle East conducting research on Palestinian refugees. Maxine completed her master’s degree in early childhood education at the American University of Beirut during this time. Fred then worked for USAID in Southeast Asia, in Africa and in Iran under the Shah, then in Greece as a delegate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He finished his overseas work in Gabon, Africa, as head of the USAID mission there.
When the couple arrived at Pitt, there were 19 Nationality Rooms, dedicated between 1938 and 1957. The university hired Maxine to replace Marcella Finegold, the interim secretary. Director emerita Ruth Crawford Mitchell, who coordinated the classrooms’ creation beginning in 1926 (the same year crews broke ground for the Cathedral of Learning), became Bruhns’ mentor and best friend.
The Nationality Rooms grew from an idea posed by then-Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman, who asked Mitchell to invite the city’s immigrant communities to create the classrooms to show “the good things they had brought to America.”
“They just kept building and building and building, even through the Depression,” Bruhns says, noting the rooms attract visitors from all over the world. When reviewers on the website TripAdvisor ranked them among the top 10 most popular sites to visit in the city, the company sent a Certificate of Excellence that she prizes.
When she started working at Pitt, the existing rooms were essentially completed, with no plans for more. Bruhns says her days then were rather boring.
“I had a closet in Bruce Hall,” she recalls of her first office. “There was nothing to do.”
Then in 1966, the unexpected death of Pitt Chancellor Stanton Crawford prompted the appointment of David H. Kurtzman as interim chancellor. Kurtzman was Jewish, and he believed the rooms should include an Israel Heritage Room.
“I had to learn how to do a room!” Bruhns says. “I went four or five times to Israel, and we got it done.”
Research trips to a designated country are typical, and each room is authentic in its depiction of a specific time period or cultural style. The Greek Nationality Room, for example, represents classical architecture from the Fifth Century B.C. The marble in the columns originated from the same mountain that contained the material used to build the Parthenon.
The Japanese room, modeled after a structure from the 1700s, was constructed without nails, using traditional joinery techniques. Carpenters from Kyoto completed the entire room in Japan, deconstructed it for shipping and reassembled it in Pittsburgh.
The Israel Heritage Room wasn’t dedicated until 1987, as the process for approval and the construction of the rooms can take years. The university charter states that each Nationality Room must be completed within five years after approval, but if the committee cannot raise enough money in time, they can present a fundraising plan and petition for more time in five-year increments.
Construction of each room is overseen by its own committee made up of seven to 30 members. Their backgrounds vary: Some committees contain prominent members of an ethnic community in Pittsburgh, some have interest or expertise in the arts or literature of a particular country, and some are NRIEP scholarship winners who want to give back through service.
Members of those committees are responsible for raising funds for their room and preparing for its eventual dedication, at which point the room is donated to the university for perpetual maintenance. From that point, committee members may remain as involved as they wish by hosting cultural programs and raising money for their room’s scholarship program.
With the exception of the Early American and the Syria-Lebanon rooms, all of the rooms serve as working classrooms. Food and drink are prohibited inside them. Since 1944, members of Quo Vadis, a guide organization, have offered tours of the rooms (about 25,000 people partake each year), and each room is equipped to present a recorded narrated history.
Most guidelines governing the rooms’ construction were established in 1926. The original guidelines stipulated that a room must represent a nation recognized by the U.S. State Department, the period it depicts must be prior to 1787 (the year the U.S. Constitution was ratified as well as the founding year of the University of Pittsburgh), and it may not contain political symbols or likenesses of living persons.
Bruhns managed to tweak the guidelines pertaining to the U.S. State Department recognition. When the Armenian and Ukrainian rooms were conceived, those nations were part of the Soviet Union.
“[Committee members] said, ‘Maxine, you’ve got to get the rule changed,’ and by God I did,” she says. At the time, the local Ukrainian population was adamant about having its own room, and Armenians began seeking out supporters for a room when they discovered the rule was going to be changed, she recalls.
“It’s how you can change history a little. And I remember during the dedication [of the Ukrainian Room], the priests were up there doing the blessings, and a woman tugged my shoulder and said, ‘Now we’re just as good as anyone.’ It was so touching.”
After she pops in on the Koreans, Bruhns’ morning continues with several meetings. First is an appointment with Mohammad Taheri, a Persian rug expert. She wants him to inspect the 220-year-old carpet in the 12th-floor room where the Nationality Rooms scholarship panels interview students. She greets him in Farsi.
She says she can’t bear to ignore the rug’s wear and tear any longer, especially in a room where such important work is conducted. Since she took over the scholarships, more than 1,000 Pitt students have spent their summers studying in a country represented by a Nationality Room. Bruhns personally administers the judging panels for each of the scholarships annually — she chooses two members, and the room’s committee chooses the other three.
“Last year I made 185 phone calls to get people,” she says.
Bruhns has endowed three of those scholarships herself; she recently came to the realization that she and her husband donated nearly $2.5 million to the university within the last 20 years.
“I decided I should finish [and aim to] hit that $3 million mark,” she says in her habitual chipper tone.
Taheri informs her the carpet is worth as much as $200,000 — much more than she anticipated — and they discuss how best to preserve it. He offers to help with the cleaning cost if she can’t find donors willing to pay.
“What a dear,” she says after he leaves.
Next, she meets with Abdesalam Soudi, the ad hoc chair of the Moroccan Nationality Room committee, which hopes to see that nation’s heritage commemorated as the Cathedral’s 34th room. He has brought her argan oil made in his hometown of Agadir.
There’s now a cap — the provost has determined there is space in the building for only 33 Nationality Rooms. An Iranian room will be the 31st, and Finnish and Philippine rooms also have been approved. Bruhns says she hopes to gain approval for the Moroccan room as well — Morocco was the first foreign nation that officially recognized the United States as a country and the first U.S. historic landmark that was not constructed on American soil stands in Morocco: the American Legation building in Tangier.
Soudi says later he’s always impressed with Bruhns’ knowledge of Morocco, and he thinks that’s part of what makes her perfect for her job.
“She is very well-traveled, and so her knowledge about world culture and language and intercultural communication helps to engage the support of the community,” he says. “I think she’s really wonderful. How many people do you have in Pittsburgh like her? Nobody.”
Soudi, a lecturer in Pitt’s Department of Linguistics, also says he appreciates that the focus of Bruhns’ work is the cultural significance of the rooms, not the business end of creating and maintaining them.
“If I said, ‘Maxine, I have $800,000 to build the Moroccan room [but no community support],’ the answer would be no,” he says. “This is about engaging the community. This is about how many Moroccans are in [the region] supporting the room. This is about are people excited about it. … It’s a cultural commitment.”
Bruhns and Sivak are fond of telling the story about a reporter from Voice of America who in April 2014 wanted to conduct an interview in the Ukrainian Room about Ukraine’s recent revolution.
“I got the architect of record, I got the committee chairman, I got two students going to study there,” Bruhns says. “The architect of record was very quiet and very concerned with what was going on in Ukraine, and [the reporter] asked him, ‘How do you feel this room represents the political situation going on in Ukraine?’ And he choked up. He was so emotional. It’s those sorts of things that keep happening every day.”
Bruhns says that because she never had children, the Nationality Rooms — and the scholarship awardees — are akin to her babies.
“It’s because with most of [the rooms], I went to that country, looked at the prototypes, met with the artists and came back and saw the thing be born and grow and be beautiful, and now [we’re] giving scholarships [for students] to go back,” she says. “I had a very intimate feeling when I traveled there … and I still feel that way.”
In the coming years, Bruhns hopes to see the Moroccan room approved and the scholarship program expanded.
“I will be replaced someday, and I hope that it’s somebody who has an international background,” she says. “It’s very complex. The cultures, my God, the cultures in Africa alone — there are 54 nations in Africa. I lived there and just began to touch the surface. But you just can’t get that sitting at a desk, so I’m hoping they will find somebody.”
But she doesn’t expect to be replaced anytime soon, does she?
She giggles at the question. “No,” she says.
A Multicultural Chronology: The Nationality Rooms Through the Years
University of Pittsburgh Historic Photographs, 1884-present, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh
1926 University of Pittsburgh Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman conceives the idea for the Nationality Rooms, meant to function as classrooms in the Cathedral of Learning and showcase the heritages of Pittsburgh’s ethnic communities. • Construction crews break ground on the 42-story Cathedral of Learning. • Ruth Crawford Mitchell begins her 31-year tenure as director of the Nationality Rooms Program.
1938 The Early American Room is presented to the university, and the German, Russian, Scottish and Swedish nationality rooms are dedicated. The Early American Room is the only one of all 29 completed rooms to be presented to the university — not dedicated — as it was a gift from one man rather than an ethnic committee.
1939 The Czechoslovak, Yugoslav, Hungarian and Chinese nationality rooms are dedicated.
1940 The Polish and Lithuanian nationality rooms are dedicated.
African Heritage Classroom/photo provided by University of pittsburgh
1941 The Syria-Lebanon Room and Greek Nationality Room are dedicated. The Syria-Lebanon and Early American rooms are the only ones that do not serve as working classrooms.
1943 The French and Romanian nationality rooms are dedicated.
1944 Quo Vadis begins to lead free tours of the rooms.
1948 The Norwegian Nationality Room is dedicated.
Austrian Nationality Room/photo provided by university of pittsburgh
1949 The Italian Nationality Room is dedicated.
1952 The English Nationality Room — the largest of the rooms — is dedicated.
1957 Ruth Crawford Mitchell retires as director and becomes director emerita. • The Irish Nationality Room is dedicated.
1965 Maxine Bruhns is hired to work in the office of the Nationality Rooms Program and shortly thereafter becomes director.
Turkish nationality room/photo provided by university of pittsburgh
1973 Rules governing new Nationality Rooms are changed to permit nations not recognized by the U.S. State Department to be represented with a room.
1987 The Israel Heritage Room is dedicated.
1988 The Armenian Nationality Room is dedicated.
1989 The African Heritage Room is dedicated.
Lithuanian Nationality room/photo provided by university of pittsburgh
1990 The Ukrainian Nationality Room is dedicated.
1991 The tradition of holding the Nationality Rooms Holiday Open House begins.
1996 The Austrian Nationality Room is dedicated.
1999 The Japanese Nationality Room — one of three rooms to be constructed in its country of origin, deconstructed and rebuilt in Pittsburgh — is dedicated. The others are Syria-Lebanon and Korean Heritage.
Ukrainian nationality room/photo provided by university of pittsburgh
2000 The Indian Nationality Room is dedicated.
2008 The Welsh Nationality Room is dedicated.
2012 The Turkish and Swiss nationality rooms are dedicated.
2015 Construction continues on the 30th Nationality Room representing Korean heritage. A dedication is planned for November.