The Colgate Scene
March 2003

Far from that comfortable chair
For Thomas and Elizabeth Brackett, retirement is an opportunity to serve others

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

When the time came to retire from teaching at Colgate, former professors Thomas and Elizabeth Brackett knew exactly what they wanted to do.

"I think one's greatest satisfaction in living -- especially as you grow older -- is to be able to focus on other people. Focus on people outside of yourself," said Elizabeth Brackett. "I think one of the problems as you get old is to become too withdrawn just into yourself, although that's not just about getting older. I have always felt this way."

"My life has been very, very good for me," Thomas Brackett said. "When I look around and see people who are much less fortunate than myself, I want to do what I can to make their life improve, their situation better."

Since the early 1990s, the Bracketts have manifested their desire to help others by devoting their time, energy and resources on behalf of the Karen (pronounced "Ka-rin") people of Southeast Asia. The Karen are an indigenous ethnic group who are concentrated in the mountainous jungle borders areas between Thailand and Myanmar (more commonly known as Burma).* What began as a visit during a sabbatical has grown into a charitable organization, the Thomas and Elizabeth Brackett Foundation, which distributed more than $78,000 among 18 educational projects and more than 100 people last year.

"When Colgate offered me a sabbatical in 1992 I pretty much guessed it would be my last before I retired," said Thomas Brackett, who taught chemistry and computer science. "I wanted to use that time to explore a retirement career of service to other people."

The Karen not only have suffered persecution at the hands of Burma's military rulers, but thousands have also been displaced because of fighting between a myriad of opposition forces and government troops. The Bracketts first visited the Thai-Burma frontier through the auspices of a program sponsored by the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church in Thailand. The couple lived and worked among the Karen at Camp Gray Ta, a refugee camp in Thailand. During their seven-month stay, the Bracketts lived in an open-sided bamboo house without electricity, except for a storage battery that had to be hauled several miles to where it could be recharged.

But throughout their initial stay, and in each return trip since, the Bracketts said they were treated with extraordinary generosity by people whose everyday lives are often shattered by disease, human rights abuses and Burma's ongoing civil strife.

"The Karen are among the most hospitable people in the world," Thomas Brackett said. "They will share with you what they have, their living space and their food. It may be meager, but they will share it with you for just as long as you care to stay with them."

During their first stay, the Bracketts learned of the Karens' intense love of country, their suffering from war and their hopes of someday returning to their homeland to live in peace.

"It was a life-changing experience. We encountered a new world of ideas, customs, religions and languages too numerous to mention," Thomas Brackett said.

"I remember not sleeping well one night. I could hear people coughing, and I thought, `There must be 100 people within coughing distance, or within baby crying distance,'" said Elizabeth Brackett, who also taught computer science. "Living in the open like the Karen do, domestic problems or family problems can't be hidden from the rest of the community."

When the time came to leave, many of the Karen the Bracketts befriended followed the couple as they left the camp, singing songs, giving them small gifts and thanking them for their efforts.

"They thought we weren't coming back," said Elizabeth Brackett. "But, of course, we did."

Since their first trip, the Bracketts have returned to visit Karen refugee camps and their new friends there each year, and even brought Colgate students with them in the mid 1990s to help the refugees learn English. After several return trips, the couple began to realize that despite their desire to stay with their friends at Camp Gray Ta, they could be of more help to the Karen by aiding them in their attempt to acquire an education. Consequently, they founded the Brackett Foundation in 1997, with the assistance of biology professor John Novak (now a foundation trustee), to raise funds to support various education projects and student scholarships.

In the meantime, Thomas Brackett started a phased retirement in 1996 in which he taught one semester a year. This allowed the Bracketts to travel to Thailand during January and February, which is an optimum time to visit given the weather in both Thailand and Hamilton at that time of year.

One of those students who accompanied the Bracketts to Thailand in 1995, Hannah Newhall Sanger '96, returned to the Karen refugee camps for an 18-month stay as a Watson Fellow, and upon returning was asked to become a Brackett Foundation trustee. Not surprisingly, she echoes the Bracketts' perceptions of the Karen.

"I loved being there," said Sanger. "I had a wonderful, wonderful time. They really nurtured me while I was there, both the Bracketts and the Karen, and helped me do what I wanted to do."

"I think they [the Bracketts] are amazing people. They have a tremendous inner strength that keeps them going," continued Sanger. "They're tireless. They work for the foundation year-round, raising money, answering e-mails, conducting interview upon interview and trying to strengthen the foundation."

Since 1997, the Brackett Foundation has grown to support education for the Karen at all levels from kindergarten to college. The foundation also provides support to boarding schools for children in Thailand, India and Burma, to parents who want to send their children to school, and teachers who want to continue working with the Karen.

"We believe that eventually the refugees will have to find their own solutions to peace in their homeland. We can't tell the Karen how best to live their lives," said Thomas Brackett. "Instead, we rely on older and wiser people among the Karen to suggest educational projects which would be especially useful to their people. For the same reason, we help educate intelligent, resourceful and committed young adults in the hope that they will use their knowledge and skills in the service of their people."

Thus far, that approach appears to be working well, he said, as several of the Karen have become project directors for the foundation.

The Bracketts spend most of each year raising funds for the foundation, but spend every January and February in Asia visiting the sites of each project they support.

"This work is tremendously rewarding for us," said Elizabeth Brackett. "Our refugee friends are deeply grateful and welcome us with joy when we return. In the course of our work we have met with heads of government, political leaders, women's groups, college professors, some very bright young adult students and many precious children who have been able to express their joy for life, despite the miserable circumstances of their existence."

The Bracketts are keenly aware that as they grow older, eventually they will have to curtail their work for the foundation. Until then, their devotion to serving others may be best summed up by the conclusion to one of the Brackett Foundation's recent appeals for support:

"We invite you to venture out from that comfortable chair. Go out and seek a new life in service to people in need. It's a risk, sure. But one that thousands of others have taken before you. And if you can find your niche -- it's surely there -- your life will change and you will be immensely rewarded."

* (Although its military government calls the country Myanmar, the U.S. government does not recognize the name.)

Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: Thirteen who served Next: In the news >>