Donald R. Thurston, professor emeritus of Asian Studies, spent his teaching career helping students fall in love with Asia just as he did seven decades ago.
With the establishment of an endowed professorship, he aims to continue that legacy for generations to come.
The Donald R. Thurston and Robert Englebach Professorship in Asian Studies, is named for Thurston and his late husband, both steadfast supporters of Union’s comprehensive approach to Asian Studies.
Thurston’s gift of $2.5 million is one of the largest gifts to the College from a faculty member.
Thurston, 93, taught Asian Studies at Union from 1966 until he retired in 1996. For those 30 years, he had a joint appointment in History and Political Science. He was on campus Nov. 1, 2022 to sign a gift agreement and attend a reception in his honor.
“Throughout his teaching career and beyond, Professor Thurston has continued to expand our curriculum – and our students’ perspectives – literally around the world,” said Union President David R. Harris. “His gift will ensure that his transformative impact continues well into the future.”
“In a profound way, Don helped to lay the foundations for the interdisciplinary program that Asian Studies is today,” said Sheri Lullo, associate professor of Asian Art History and director of Asian Studies. “He taught History and Political Science, but also initiated the study of Asian culture and art at Union. And now, this recent gift continues his legacy of expanding the many perspectives we can offer to students in the study of Asia.”
“It is not a stretch to say that the first 1986 Union College term abroad to Nanjing, China changed my life,” said James Sawyer ’88. “Thanks to the passion and love of travel that Professor Thurston passed along to all of us, and his love for Japan and Asia, I had an incredible and unforgettable experience in China.”
Through his gift, Thurston envisions a faculty member who is engaged with the people of at least one Asian country, is fluent in their language, and understands their culture from having lived with the people for a few years. The scholar would be based in a department ranging from music to history or anthropology, but with two-thirds of their courses each year in Asian Studies, which Union offers as a cross-disciplinary program.
In 1989, with the help of many faculty, Thurston founded the East Asian Studies program. Students could major in the program by studying Japanese or Chinese, taking required courses and a few electives. His goal: to open students to the great and different civilizations of Japan and China.
Englebach, who retired as a quality systems engineer at GE, established the Robert G. Englebach Endowed Fund for Asian Studies through his estate. Having traveled to Japan six times to see Thurston for two weeks each time, he knew the importance of supporting students to study there. The couple, who took major trips each year with destinations including China and India, was together for 37 years until Englebach’s passing in 2015.
Falling in love with Japan
Drafted as an Army private in 1951, Thurston was bound for the war in Korea when he was one of two soldiers removed from a troop ship in Yokohama to learn typing. The ship carried 2,000 soldiers. “We were the only two who had graduated from college,” he said. “The Army thought maybe we could learn how to type.”
Thurston spent the next two months along Japan’s Inland Sea. When he wasn’t learning to type, he explored the small villages and cities in the area. Later, he was sent to Army headquarters in Korea, where he served as a clerk typist for a year and a half. He went to Japan twice for R&R.
“This was a crucial time when I fell in love with Japan,” he recalled. “Before this, I knew nothing at all about that part of the world.”
Around the world
Discharged from the Army in 1953, he asked to be discharged in Korea. “I figured the Army had gotten me halfway around the world,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I go the rest of the way?”
Thurston’s parents surprised him by blessing his plan to travel the world. His enlightened grandmother had set aside $1,000 for each of her grandchildren to travel abroad. Thurston used his share to vagabond his way through Asia and Europe, sometimes sleeping in parks and on beaches. He carried only a knapsack, Olivetti typewriter and camera.
From Korea, his first stop was Japan, where he climbed Mt. Fuji before traveling through the Southeast Asian countries. Then it was on to India, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, France, England and Scotland.
Back in the U.S. in 1954, he enrolled in Columbia University’s East Asian Studies program to earn a master’s in international relations. From 1956 to 1958, he was back in Japan to teach conversational English at Tohoku University and learn more about Japanese culture. From 1959 to 1961, he taught English at Tenafly (N.J.) High School, an experience he credits for making him a better teacher.
Teaching at the college level
By 1961, Thurston was intent on teaching about Japan and China at the college level. He returned to Columbia’s East Asian Studies program for courses on Japanese and Chinese histories and political systems. He earned his Ph.D. with a dissertation comparing Japanese teachers’ unions before and after World War II.
He joined Union in 1966. “When I arrived at Union, there were almost no courses offered on Asia,” he said. His first course was Modern Japanese History, quickly followed by Chinese Modern History and courses on the political systems of Japan and China.
He was granted leave from Union in 1971 to return to Japan to update his dissertation. The result was a book, “Teachers and Politics in Japan” (Princeton University Press, 1973). Thurston’s book explored the Japan Teachers’ Union, a relatively radical group in direct conflict with conservative government policies, and concluded that the union was more influential at the local level.
In 1984, he led Union’s first term to Japan at Kansai Gaidai University with each student living with a Japanese family. Two years later, he took 12 students on Union’s first term in China at Nanjing Teachers College.
During his time at Union, the College has supported Thurston to attend seminars on topics ranging from Chinese landscape painting to Buddhism. “Union was very good to me to allow me to do these things, and it greatly helped my teaching,” he said.
Of his gift, Thurston said, “I hope this will help students to respect all the peoples of Asia and stimulate them to maintain a lifetime interest in Asia.”
Donald Thurston, who lives in Burnt Hills, N.Y., spends his summers at his seaside cottage in Brooksville, Maine. He is a regular on campus for music concerts and laps in the Alumni Gym pool.