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The Serendipitous Life of Dr. Alan Brender

The Serendipitous Life of Dr. Alan Brender


The Serendipitous Life of Dr. Alan Brender

When interviewing LUJ Dean Emeritus Dr. Alan S. Brender, one question arises: Where to start? Do we go to Kenya, where he spent three years as a member of the Peace Corps? Do we go to his time living in Swaziland (now Eswatini), Malaysia, the Netherlands, and Norway, or his visits to Mongolia and Indonesia? Or do we simply settle within his decades of accomplishments here in Japan?

“I’ve lived a very serendipitous life,” says Dr. Brender, as we sat in Takadanobaba’s Café Cotton Club. Alan has, in his lifetime, visited over 90 countries, from Greenland to the Congo. In his travels, he has sailed up the Amazon, ridden a train from Hong Kong to Poland via Mongolia and Siberia, spent three months on a bus traveling from Calcutta to London, and hitch-hiked from Nairobi to Cape Town.

Where to start? Perhaps the beginning. 

For several hours, riding high on red wine and dishes of spaghetti and mushroom risotto, Dr. Brender opened a few windows into his past.

His lifelong dance with serendipity started in inner-city Detroit, where he grew up with two older brothers, a younger sister and brother. In those post-World War II years, Alan attended St. Elizabeth Catholic School, “all 12 years,” and went on to nearby Wayne State University. “I was always working and studying,” Dr. Brender says, showing me a picture of him behind the counter of a laundry business. In his first year at Wayne State, his mother passed away. Although Dr. Brender didn’t explicitly call this moment a turning point in his life, listening to his stories, one wonders if a streak of carpe diem entered his being…a call in some way to embrace the world’s challenges, or the madness of existence, and not live too safely.

At Wayne State, two dual interests began to emerge: Journalism and Education. To write and to teach…the yin and yang of human communication. For the rest of his life, Alan immersed himself in these two fields.

You could say that Alan’s first moment of serendipity was while seated at a table at Wayne State University. Soon to be a graduate, Alan saw a sign that read ‘Peace Corps Interviews.’ “When I saw it, I thought, ‘why not’?” he says. Indeed, Alan, his spirit free and easy, walked right in and, with nothing to lose, nailed the interview, the Peace Corps eventually assigning him a spot in Nairobi, Kenya. Without much hesitation, Alan took it, and on January 3, 1967, he boarded a plane and began his first adventure outside the United States. For three years, Alan felt the pulse of Kenyan culture, working as a high school teacher in a farming village near the forested slopes of Mt. Kenya, meeting Kikuyu and Masai warriors, and realizing just how utterly massive this world actually is.

Upon returning to the United States, Alan pursued those two dual forces, picking up a master’s degree from Columbia, and pounding the pavement in search of stories. Keeping the insatiable curiosity he’d used to push himself toward Kenya, Alan soon became the editor of magazines, crisscrossing the US numerous times by bus and train, staying in New York and Los Angeles. In those nomadic years, Alan wrote and edited for magazines as pragmatic as Floor Covering Weekly, and as fantastical as Starlog, a Sci-Fi magazine. “I interviewed Mark Hamill [Luke Skywalker], Jane Seymour, Christopher Reeve [Superman], David Hasselhoff, Billy Crystal, many celebrities.”

Don’t believe him? Here's snippet from his feature on the beautiful Jane Seymour during her role in Somewhere in Time. Also, check out this profile he did on actress Erin Gray, star of the sci-fi television series Buck Rogers and the 25th Century, or this special inside report on the film Space Shuttle, or this feature on the popularity of Battlestar Galactica, or, our favorite, this in-depth dive into the Trains of Tomorrow, which seems to now foretell Alan’s long-term passion for Japan.

Alan even made an appearance on the game show Family Feud, the picture of which leads this feature. The host at the time, Richard Dawson, is now remembered more for kissing many of the female contestants. "I had gone to the set to present Richard Dawson with an award for best quiz show, and being the egoist he was, he insisted I present it to him on the air...I can still remember him embarrassing me for not wearing a suit to the show,” Dr. Brender recalled. “In front of 10 to 12 million viewers. Can you believe it?”

Survey says…yes, now we can. Still, as you can see in the picture, he wore those vertical stripes well. 

So, how did Alan come to Japan? Well, serendipity, of course. It was through a lifelong friend, Kohichi Nakayama, he met while teaching in New York. Over a few drinks, Nakayama lofted the idea of the two of them working together. Nakayama had launched a chemical company, called Chemitox, and could use Alan’s skills as a writer and educator. Why don’t you come to Japan? Alan didn't know it at the time, but decades later, it would be Nakayama (as CEO) who'd encourage company president Rose Ito to become an LUJ Board Member and assist in our campus move from Shinjuku to Ryogoku.

But back at that New York restaurant, Alan smiled at the idea: Japan...and just like that, there he was, seeing that Peace Corps sign once more. "Sure…why not.” He had a few irons in the fire at the time, a potential screenplay that actress Jane Fonda had expressed interest in doing, articles for Afternoon TV magazine, and so on. 

But Japan, like Kenya, intrigued Alan. A new adventure awaited. Fortunately for all of us here in Japan, he stuck around. 

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