Professor Thurston remembered for impact on Asian Studies

Publication Date
Don Thurston with President David Harris

Don Thurston with President David Harris at the fall 2022 celebration of Thurston's endowed professorship.

Donald R. Thurston, professor emeritus of Asian Studies, who over three decades of teaching helped students fall in love with the culture, art and language of Asia, passed away June 5, 2023. He was 93.

He taught at Union from 1966 until he retired in 1996.

In 1989, Thurston helped launch the East Asian Studies program with the goal of introducing students to the cultures and civilizations of Japan and China, which had captivated him as a young man.

Last fall, he established an endowed professorship, the Donald R. Thurston and Robert Englebach Professorship in Asian Studies. It 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.

“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 at a November ceremony to honor the professor. “His gift will ensure that his transformative impact continues well into the future.”

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.”

Drafted as an Army private in 1951 after he earned a B.A. from Syracuse University, 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.”

When he wasn’t learning to type, he explored the small villages and cities along Japan’s Inland Sea. After he was assigned to Army headquarters in Korea, he returned to Japan for R&R.

Discharged from the Army in 1953, he decided to stay in Korea and then travel the world. “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 blessed his plan, and 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. He carried only a knapsack, Olivetti typewriter and camera.

Back in the U.S. in 1954, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and 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. From 1959 to 1961, he taught English at Tenafly (N.J.) High School.

By 1961, Thurston was intent on teaching 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 to teach courses on the history and political systems of Japan and China.

He took 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).

Professor Donald Thurston, top right, leading the College's inaugural term in China in 1986

Professor Donald Thurston, top right, leading the College's inaugural term in China in 1986

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.

“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, when Thurston endowed the professorship. “He taught history and political science, but also initiated the study of Asian culture and art at Union. His recent gift continues his legacy of expanding the many perspectives we can offer to students in the study of Asia.”

James Sawyer ’88 is among many alumni who recalled Thurston’s impact. “It is not a stretch to say that the first 1986 Union College term abroad to Nanjing, China changed my life,” he said. “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.”

Thurston and his husband, Robert Englebach, were together for 37 years before Robert died in 2015. They took many trips throughout the world and loved spending summers at their seaside cottage along Maine’s Penobscot Bay where they sailed, attended chamber music concerts, entertained friends, and sat on the rocks watching beautiful sunsets. Robert called their summers, “Our other life.”

Survivors include his sisters-in-law, Phyllis Thurston and Jean Englebach; and nephews, Scott and Jeff Thurston.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Thurston Asian Studies Fund, Union College, Office of College Relations, Abbe Hall, 807 Union Street, Schenectady, N.Y. 12308; Kneisel Hall Music Festival, 54 Main St. Blue Hill, ME 04614; or to Capital Pride, 332 Hudson Ave., Albany, NY 12210.

Professor Thurston’s obituary has been posted online.