Understanding and appreciating the major civilizations of Asia

Robert Englbach (left) and Donald Thurston (right) sailing off the coast of Maine in summer 1987.

Robert Englbach (left) and Donald Thurston (right) sailing off the coast of Maine in summer 1987.

As retirement approached in the mid-1990s, Donald Thurston, professor of history and political science, set up a permanent funding source for Union's Asian Studies program. Already an active donor, he made his first gift to the Donald R. Thurston Fund for Asian Studies in 1993.

Thurston had long labored to develop a comprehensive approach to the study of Asia in Union's curriculum, and in 1990 he was instrumental in helping establish the Asian Studies program as we know it today.

"I wanted to do something to infect others with a passion for traveling to - and understanding the countries of - Asia, and East Asia in particular," he said. "These nations are thousands of years old and full of good people."

Thurston first traveled to Asia when he was drafted into the Korean War in 1951. He had just graduated from Syracuse University and was stationed in Japan for eight weeks before he was sent to Korea. During the next year and a half, he returned to Japan twice. These trips - and a year-long knapsack adventure around the world that started in Tokyo after his release from the U.S. Army - spurred his lifelong interest in the cultures and histories of Asia.

When Thurston joined the Union faculty in 1966, he began teaching courses on the histories and governmental structures of both Japan and China. Over time, he expanded his knowledge to the art world and taught courses on Japanese aesthetics and Chinese landscape painting.

Robert Englebach (standing) and Donald Thurston (seated) on their wedding day, October 29, 2008, in Stockbridge, Mass.

Robert Englebach (standing) and Donald Thurston (seated) on their wedding day, October 29, 2008, in Stockbridge, Mass.

He also established Union's first terms abroad to Japan and China.

When Thurston decided to create his fund for Asian Studies, he prioritized bringing programs and speakers to campus. Realizing that needs change over time, he also elected to give the Asian Studies faculty flexibility for spending.

"I have long been moved by the unending support and guidance Don Thurston has shown us all in Asian Studies," said Jennifer Milioto Matsue, chair and professor of music and program director of World Musics and Cultures. "He possesses a curiosity and generosity that is unmatched and remains a tremendous inspiration for Asian Studies today."

Together with his husband, Robert Englebach, a quality systems engineer for the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine program at GE, Thurston continued to make gifts to the Thurston Fund. Eventually, Englebach made the decision to establish the Robert G. Englebach Endowed Fund for Asian Studies, which he funded through his estate in 2015.

"Robert knew from his own trips to visit me in Japan how expensive it was to travel internationally," Thurston said of his husband, who died in May of 2015. "He wanted to make it possible for Union students of all backgrounds to be able to travel to and study in Asia."

Although he misses Englebach very much, Thurston recalls all the major trips they took to Asia, Africa, Central America and other locations with much fondness. He also continues to make gifts to Asian Studies. Thurston hopes the funding will sow amongst Union faculty and students the seeds of passion he has carried for the study of Asia for so many rewarding decades.

For more information on Propelling the Liberal Arts and Engineering at Union College or to make a gift, please contact Scott Rava, assistant vice president for principal gifts and campaign director, at: (518) 388-6481 or ravas@union.edu.

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