Elmhurst in Depth

History Lessons

Joan and Lester Brune built extraordinary careers as scholars and educators. Now, they’re supporting the educational mission of their alma mater.

Given the important role that history and education would play throughout their lives, it’s fitting that Joan and Lester Brune met through a history class at Elmhurst College.

As a freshman, Joan had a tendency to arrive late to history because her previous class was all the way across campus. “Les was the proctor for my history class,” recalled Joan, who graduated in 1951. “I would come in late, and he would be waiting for me, smiling his toothy smile.”

“And I would make a note of it,” grinned Lester.

From that first meeting in history class at Elmhurst, the Brunes went on to twin careers as groundbreaking and innovative scholars and educators, their influence felt from Central Illinois to Berlin and back to the campus of their alma mater. At Elmhurst, their support has helped establish an international study program, enhanced campus facilities and advanced the study of history with an endowed chair. 

Even their first date was all about history. Taking Lester to a Sadie Hawkins dance on campus, Joan discovered that dating a dedicated history major like Lester brought its own challenges.

“On our first date, he spent two and a half hours talking about Arnold Toynbee [a British historian],” she recalled. “We didn’t do much dancing, but we had a lot of Toynbee.” Lester, who tends to defer to Joan in conversation, smiled again and nodded.

Married during Joan’s senior year at Elmhurst, the couple recently celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary.

Lester’s passion for history propelled him to a long and distinguished career as a scholar, author and professor of history at Bradley University. After graduating from Elmhurst in 1948, Lester earned a master’s degree at Bradley and a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester. He spent a year conducting research in Washington, D.C., and another year teaching at Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston) in Charleston, West Virginia, before joining the Bradley faculty in 1956.

At Bradley, he served as chair of the history department and assistant dean of the Liberal Arts College, retiring as the university’s Oglesby Professor of American Heritage after four decades of teaching.

Along the way, Lester wrote a large number of scholarly books about diplomacy and foreign affairs, including Chronological History of U.S. Foreign Relations, a three-volume set that historian Robert Pearce praised as “clearly written,” “valuable” and “splendidly produced” in a review on Historytoday.com. 

“Everyone in the history department had confidence in Les,” noted Gregory Guzman, who served on the history faculty at Bradley with Lester. “His ideas were well reasoned, and he had obvious leadership qualities. He was literally running the Liberal Arts College even when he didn’t have the title of dean.”

As leader of the history department, Lester had some groundbreaking ideas. “Les was a very original thinker,” Guzman said. “In the early 1970s, he introduced a new course on Introduction to World History and got the entire history faculty to team-teach it. It was quite an achievement to get eight independent-minded people to work together like that.”

In the classroom, Lester cut an inspiring figure for his students, many of whom signed up for all of his classes after taking just one. “Les was the classic teacher scholar—he was a very good researcher, and did excellent work in foreign affairs and diplomacy, but he was also very open to other people’s ideas and supportive of his students and colleagues,” as Guzman put it. “I modeled my teaching and research career after his.”

While Lester was building an academic career, Joan, who completed a double major in history and English at Elmhurst, took a circuitous route toward launching her own career as an educator.

She spent the first decade or so of married life working a highly diverse series of jobs—ranging from typist at the University of Rochester to test driver of new Thunderbirds at the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan.

The couple relocated to Peoria in 1957, when Lester was hired to join the Bradley faculty. Joan completed her master’s degree at Bradley, only to discover that the only jobs available for women were in the education field. So she started teaching first grade at Whittier Elementary School—and discovered that she loved teaching.

Seven years later, she decided it was time to get into advocacy work. “The salaries of teachers at that time were not equivalent to those of the janitors at Caterpillar,” she said. “And whatever the school system’s Central Office said was law. I became president of the teachers’ association in the hope of getting Central Office to recognize that teachers should have a voice.”

Once she began to make demands for changes, however, the Peoria school district filed a $3 million lawsuit against her. “The suit lasted a year and a half, but I won—I was vindicated. I had a lot of support from my fellow teachers and from the community.”

After winning the lawsuit, Joan decided it was time to get another degree and completed her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. The program had a one-year residency requirement, so she spent a year living in Urbana. “Five days a week I would eat Banquet chicken dinners—they cost 89 cents each, and I never got tired of it,” she recalled. “Then Les would come down on weekends and take me out to fancy dinners.”

With her Ph.D. completed, Joan returned to Peoria and Whittier Elementary, where she taught and served as K-12 reading coordinator. She moved into administration eventually, closing out her career as the principal of Whittier, where she began her teaching career. International travel has been a constant thread in the Brunes’ life.

“It started when we were first married,” said Joan. “On our honeymoon we went to Belgium, Holland and France. We saw tourists who had to stay on the bus because they were too old to walk around and see the sights, so we said, ‘Let’s not wait until we’re too old to appreciate the world—let’s travel while we’re younger.’” 

So travel they did. Taking three major trips every year, the Brunes traveled to every country in the world except 10.

“We’ve been in revolutions, we’ve been with tanks in the street, we’ve been quarantined in Tokyo. We’ve done tours, we’ve traveled on our own,” said Joan. “Traveling is a way to understand people up close and personal, and it makes you appreciate what you have even more.”

The Brunes’ home is testament to their international adventures. An unassuming ranch house in a quiet Peoria subdivision, the home is filled with mementos. The kitchen walls are lined with tiles depicting scenes from every corner of the world. Japanese and Chinese artwork fills the living room walls, and sculptures from all over the world take pride of place on tables throughout the house.

Travel played an important role in Lester’s scholarly life as well. For many years, he served as director of the Bradley Berlin Seminar for College Faculty, an annual two-week summer program designed to immerse scholars in the history and culture of Germany.

“When we started the program, Berlin still had a divided border,” Lester said. “The program crossed the border, with sessions in both East and West Berlin. After Berlin was reunified, we expanded the program to Prague. And the program is still going strong today.”

It was through the Berlin program that the Brunes rekindled close ties to their alma mater. In the early 1990s, an invitation to the Berlin Seminar found its way to Wally Lagerwey, then-head of Elmhurst’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. Lagerwey decided to attend.

“The first time I met Les was in Berlin at the seminar,” Lagerwey recalled. “We both had ties to Elmhurst, and we shared many of the same academic interests, so we clicked.”

Lagerwey maintained a warm relationship with Lester and Joan long after he returned from Berlin. In 1997, when the College established the Center for Professional Excellence (CPE) as a comprehensive resource for students at every step of the career-building process, Lagerwey approached the Brunes to see if they might be interested in helping fund an international component to the CPE.

“We were just getting started on our study-abroad program at the time, and there was very limited funding for it from the College,” Lagerwey said. “The Brunes provided instrumental support that allowed us to get the program up and running.”

The Brunes’ support enabled the College to expand study-abroad opportunities dramatically. When the Office of International Education was established in 1997, only two or three Elmhurst students engaged in long-term study abroad in an average year, and the College offered one or two overseas classes each January Term. Today, 200 students spend a term abroad in a typical year, and students can choose from more than 30 January Term trips.

“Studying abroad has an incredible impact on students,” said Lagerwey. “For many, it’s their first time out of the country. They come back marveling at how big the world is and fascinated by what they saw. And it’s unimaginable that we would have expanded the program so much without the Brunes’ generous support.”

But providing seed funding for the international education program was just the beginning of the Brunes’ impact on campus. In 2001, Lester donated funds in honor of his wife to build the outdoor brick patio that serves as an extension of the Frick Center. The Joan Brune Patio offers outdoor seating overlooking the College Mall where students gather to study, enjoy a meal and socialize with friends. Not to be outdone, Joan made a gift in honor of her husband to fund the Lester H. Brune Tennis Courts, a six-court tennis facility built in 2003 just west of the campus.

Most recently, the Brunes established the Joan and Lester Brune Chair in History at the College to support teaching and research in history. A powerful tool for attracting and retaining faculty members, an endowed chair provides funding to a designated faculty member to support activities beyond the regular teaching duties, such as attending conferences or developing international experiences for students. The inaugural chair holder is Robert Butler.

“Les was the first history chair at Bradley, and we’d like to see others have the same opportunity,” Joan said.

“We also wanted to support the teaching of history at the College because we both love history,” added her husband. “After all, the past is the prologue to the future; to understand the present, you have to understand the past.”

“The Brunes’ generosity has had a  powerful impact on Elmhurst College,” said President S. Alan Ray. “Over the years, their gifts have allowed us to expand our international education program and enhance the beauty and utility of the campus itself. With this most recent gift, the Brunes are leaving a lasting mark on the teaching of history at the College.”

In 1994, Lester was honored with the Elmhurst College Alumni Merit Award. In 2000, the Brunes became the first couple to receive Elmhurst College Founders Medals. Joan received her medal for what then-President Bryant Cureton termed “a lifetime of both teaching excellence and administrative excellence,” while Lester’s citation called him a “distinguished professor, outstanding donor and friend.”

Just as it’s fitting that the Brunes met over a history lesson, it’s similarly appropriate that they were the first to receive the College’s Founders Medal as a couple. For 63 years now, Joan and Lester Brune have been working, together and as individuals, to improve the timeless business of teaching, and of teaching history.

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