Bio Brent Ashabranner
LIGHTING CANDLES FOR HALF A CENTURY
by Tony Zurlo, (13) 64-66 Most Nigeria RPCVs may not know or remember the name, but he was there at the beginning. An education officer with USAID when he greeted Sargent Shriver in April 1961 at Lagos airport, Brent Ashabranner was sold on the Peace Corps idea from the start. He volunteered to escort Shriver around Nigeria to meet with government leaders.
"It just seemed to be assumed that I would carry on the Peace Corps’ business after Shriver and his team left, and I did." As Acting Representative (Director) in Nigeria, Ashabranner traveled the country from Lagos to Kano and into the bush making site surveys of the schools receiving volunteers, checking on housing, school scheduling, and other conditions prior to the Nigeria I arrival in September 1961.
In 1962, Dr. Samuel Proctor became the first permanent Director, and Ashabranner returned to a staff position in Washington, DC.
"I was proud of the Peace Corps volunteer teachers I knew and worked with in Nigeria. They were pioneers in a very real way, tackling tough assignments and finding ways to do what the Peace Corps expected of them," he writes in his published, The Times of My Life.
Days after his return to Washington, Shriver recruited Ashabranner for the India program. He served as Deputy Director for two years and as Director 1964-66. Having completed his service in India, Ashabranner returned to Washington, first as Director of Training and finally as Deputy Director of the Peace Corps 1967-69. He was honored with the National Civil Service League Career Service Award Citation in 1968 for his "administrative skill in designing constructive programs of self-help as an essential contribution toward peace for all mankind."
With the change of administration in 1968, Ashabranner resigned from the government and signed on with the Ford Foundation. He was officer-in-charge of the Foundation’s Philippines program 1972-75 and Deputy Director of the Indonesian program 1976-80.
Throughout his "second life" overseas, Ashabranner always had his family with him, Martha teaching in the schools and helping her husband with his writing projects, and his two daughters experiencing an exceptionally enriching childhood. The girls attended schools in Ethiopia, Libya, Nigeria, and India before graduating from high school in Maryland.
"Martha still travels with me, helps with interviews, sometimes takes photographs for my books and articles, and reads my manuscripts with a critical and practiced eye."
Ashabranner’s daughters have gone on to successful careers of their own. Melissa graduated from Temple University with a degree in anthropology and completed a master’s in public and private management at Yale University. She and husband Jean-Keith started a Washington community newspaper, Hill Rag, which is "a major voice on Capital Hill." Melissa collaborated with her father on Into a Strange Land and Counting America: The Story of the United States Census.
Jennifer is a professional, small-pet groomer and an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in New York Times, USA Today, Parenting, and in textbooks. She and her father have worked together on several books, including Always to Remember, A Memorial for Mr. Lincoln and A Grateful Nation: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery.
Always a writer at heart, Brent Ashabranner claims he is in the middle of his "third life." Born in 1921, in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Ashabranner attended schools in El Reno and Bristow, OK, and got his bachelor’s at Oklahoma A&M. After four years in the Navy, he returned to Oklahoma A&M where he completed his master’s and taught English until 1956. His "second life," began when the Point Four program invited him to help create books and reading material for Ethiopian schools. After 25 years of international service, he retired in 1981, and began his "third life" in Williamsburg, VA, using "this quiet and wonderfully-rich cradle of American democracy as a base for writing about and interpreting the American experience."
Finally, retired at sixty-one, Ashabranner returned full-time to his earliest love—writing. He had already established himself as a successful writer, with many short stories to his credit. With Russell Davis, his Point Four partner in Ethiopia, Ashabranner published The Lion’s Whiskers in 1959. This popular introduction to, and collection of, Ethiopian folk tales was revised and published again in 1996. During the sixties, he and Davis co-authored several other children’s books and two novels.
The American Library Association (ALA) selected six of his books as Notable Children’s Books—-The New Americans: Changing Patterns in U.S. Immigration; Gavriel and Jemal: Two Boys of Jerusalem; Dark Harvest: Migrant Farmworkers in America; Children of the Maya: A Guatemalan Indian Odyssey; Into a Strange Land : Unaccompanied Refugee Youth; and Always to Remember: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The ALA has named To Live in Two Worlds: American Indian Youth Today and Always to Remember as Best Books for Young Adults.
Three times, the National Council for the Social Studies awarded him the Carter G. Woodson Award for Non-Fiction for books that depict ethnicity in the U.S., and an Outstanding Merit Book Award two other years. He won the Boston Globe Horn Book award for Dark Harvest.
In 1990, he was awarded the Washington Post Children’s Book Guild Award for his career in nonfiction. His book with Russell G. Davis The Choctaw Code won the 1995 Oklahoma Center for the Book Award for Best Children/Young Adult Book.
In 1996, the National Council of Teacher’s of English recommended for children, his book about the Great Plains Indians in exile, A Strange and Distant Shore.
Today, Ashabranner’s books are required or optional reading in courses from fourth grade through university. McGraw-Hill’s Spotlight on Literature lesson plans for grades six and seven include his books To Live in Two Worlds: American Indian Youth Today and Always to Remember. His book An Ancient Heritage, covering the experiences of Arab-Americans and Arab immigration to the U.S., is recommended reading by Cindy Chang, University of Washington, English as a Second Language Center, Seattle.
Always to Remember is recommended by Childlit in its Bibliography on Vietnam and the War prepared by Kay E. Vandergrift, Associate Professor, School of Communication Information and Library Studies at Rutgers University. The New Americans is used in a writing and reading course and a geography course on race and ethnicity at the University of California Berkeley.
Still a Nation of Immigrants is used in courses on immigration in many secondary schools across the country. The New Americans is on a short list of readings for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute’s program "Home A Celebration of Cultural Richness in Our Community" by Cynthia H. Roberts. The list is endless and would require an entire newsletter.
His writing style is deceptively modest and silently smooth, drawing readers immediately into his story. Here’s just one example: "In Jerusalem the sun shines with a blinding brightness, making the ancient city a place of light. The sun washes over the Western Wall, that fragment of Herod’s Temple most beloved to Jews, and makes the huge worn stones look almost white. The sun sends flashing spears of light from the Dome of the Rock, precious shrine of Islam. It gives a tawny glow, the color of a lion’s hide, to the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity’s most sacred place." (Gavriel and Jemal 9).
After studying this man’s life and works, and reading his memoirs and his book about the Peace Corps, A Moment in History: The First Ten Years of the Peace Corps, I must conclude that Brent Ashabranner is an extraordinary man, not just for his successful multiple careers, but especially for his modesty in our age of vanity. Searching carefully for any hint of self-promotion in his writings will lead readers down a dead-end trial. Reading his books reveals one overwhelming characteristic, pointed out by a reviewer of his book Our Beckoning Borders: Illegal Immigration to America: "The compassion and understanding of the author are apparent throughout."
The topics he writes about and his writing style reflect the dignity of the man. Recognizing his refined style and vast international experience, I asked Ashabranner why he never wrote for the adult commercial market so he could make his million. His answer reflects his humanitarian nature, but, even more significantly, it reveals the power of writing on his own life.
"It is only in childhood that books have a deep influence on us. As adults we may enjoy books and learn from them, but they do not at that time change or influence our behavior, the way our lives take shape."
The Christophers, founded by Father James Keller, M.M., over 50 years ago, presented Ashabranner with a Christopher Award in 1988 for his book Into a Strange Land. These awards are "presented to the producers, directors and writers of books, motion pictures and television specials which affirm the highest values of the human spirit." Their motto is "It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness."
Ashabranner has been lighting candles for 57 years. Rather than cynically condemn society for its many sins, Ashabranner has written tirelessly to brighten the minds of all young Americans. And for Lithuanians, Haitians, Native Americans, Southeast Asians, Hispanics, and for all the other ethnic minorities he has written about, Ashabranner has "one overriding hope....that the people I write about will emerge as human beings whose lives are real and valuable and who have a right to strive for decent lives."