After a 54-year career at Pitt, E. Maxine Bruhns announced her retirement earlier this month as director of the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs at age 96.
Born in West Virginia in 1924, Bruhns is considered at Pitt as a “citizen of the world”—growing the Nationality Rooms into a collection of 31 mini-museums representing the immigrant populations of Pittsburgh and their contributions to the city. Today, the rooms are collectively designated a historical landmark by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.
“The Nationality Rooms are, and will forever be, linked to the identity of the city of Pittsburgh. Maxine has been absolutely instrumental in this achievement,” said Ariel C. Armony, vice provost for global affairs and director of the University Center for International Studies (UCIS), which houses the Nationality Rooms. “This is her legacy.”
A life well-traveled
Before starting at Pitt in the 1960s, Bruhns experienced many cultures of the world first-hand by living and working in several different countries.
For about 15 years, Bruhns and her husband, Fred C. Bruhns, lived in countries including Lebanon, Vietnam, Cambodia and Greece. She completed her master’s degree during the couple’s time in Lebanon, did humanitarian work and taught English in several countries. Fred’s work mainly focused on aiding refugees, eventually serving as the head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in Athens, Greece.
“I survived all of these different moves with no tragedies and learning not to hate but always appreciating the culture in which I was living,” said Bruhns in her farewell announcement in the Nationality and Heritage Rooms newsletter. “I brought that back with me and found this marvelous job where I used those experiences to establish a legacy that will continue beyond my time with you. These rooms and programs that are so dear to me will remain my greatest accomplishment.”
From 19 to 31 rooms
The Nationality Rooms may have never grown into what they have become today had Bruhns not taken a job at Pitt in 1965 as executive secretary of the cultural and educational exchange committee. At the time, her husband also accepted a job as a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
“When Maxine came to Pitt, the Nationality Rooms were considered to be done. She infused the program with energy. She felt that the rooms could tell the story of what Pittsburgh’s immigrants meant to this country,” said Maryann Sivak, assistant to the director of the Nationality Programs and longtime friend of Bruhns. “She was ahead of the times before diversity became ‘modern.’”
Under Bruhns’ leadership, the program has grown from 19 to 31 rooms, including the Philippine Room, which was dedicated in May 2019.
The first room to be created under Bruhns’ purview was the Israel Heritage Room, dedicated in 1987. According to Sivak, Bruhns traveled to Israel three or four times during the construction process. Sivak said Bruhns did the same for many subsequent rooms, taking trips to countries including Austria, Japan, India, Ukraine and others to review architectural prototypes.
“What I really admire about her is she always paid close attention to detail. She was an editor early in her career so written and spoken word were very important to her,” said Sivak, who said Bruhns is fluent in French and German and also has knowledge of Farsi, Arabic and Greek.
“She also never forgot to send a thank you card. She puts a personal touch on everything she does,” said Sivak.
Bruhns also started the beloved tradition of holding a Nationality Rooms Holiday Open House, and she expanded a summer study abroad scholarship program that allows more than 50 Pitt students to travel each year. To date, the program has awarded scholarships to more than 4,000 students.
What’s next for the Nationality Rooms
Many of Bruhn’s colleagues said that they value her commitment to protecting the rooms as a non-political celebration of diversity and inclusivity.
“Maxine insisted that the political subjects never be discussed in presentations. She always said we are a strictly a cultural organization,” said Sivak, who said she continues to see Bruhns on a daily basis.
“Maxine never had an agenda other than to protect the Nationality Rooms. She very much understood the non-political nature that formed the foundation of the room,” said Michael Walter, Nationality Rooms tour coordinator and advisor of the student tour guide group Quo Vadis.
Belkys Torres, executive director of global engagement at UCIS, said that a job description for a new director is currently being developed.