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A Lasting Legacy for Students in Africa

Honoring the memory of a generous traveler

Posted on 11/15/2016 12:01:00 PM in The Buzz

After meeting the children of Tanzania while on safari, Hugh Thurnauer gave generously to support their education for the remainder of his life.

On behalf of Harriet and Alan Lewis and everyone at Grand Circle Foundation, we extend our condolences to the family of Hugh Thurnauer, and thank his son, Gary, for sharing personal stories from “a celebration of life”—which is just as Hugh wanted it to be.

Earlier this autumn, we learned of the passing of a very special traveler who truly became part of the O.A.T. family. Hugh Thurnauer, a 7-time traveler from Mason, OH, had donated a total of $30,500 to Grand Circle Foundation by the time of his death at age 97, providing scholarships for 24 students in Tanzania and Kenya. He never lost touch with the Foundation, expressing a keen interest in the students he supported and frequently reaching out for progress reports.

As it so happens, we’ll be sending more progress reports—because Hugh’s generosity will help educate children in East Africa for years to come: In his will, he left $20,000 to Grand Circle Foundation. We are humbled by the opportunity to continue Hugh’s legacy in Tanzania and Kenya, which began 14 years ago as a way to honor the memory of his late wife, Alina.

Hugh married Alina at age 80, and together they lived out the travel dreams that he’d had since he was young. Traveling was just one of many interests fueled by Hugh’s adventurous spirit. He was an athlete who enjoyed swimming and bowling—and a runner until into his 80s. He loved opera and the theater, and indulged his passion both onstage and behind the scenes.

One passion, though, was less well-known to Hugh’s many friends: his philanthropy, particularly in support of the education of children. In Hugh’s mind, his incredibly long life had nearly been cut short twice, first in an automobile accident and later during a road race, when he suffered a heart attack while running. His luck caused him to consider his purpose in life—and prompted him to start paying back. Closer to home, he established a scholarship fund for students in theater at the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, CT, the preparatory school he attended in his youth. His travels would eventually extend his philanthropic reach halfway across the world.

In 2002, Hugh and Alina decided to take a Tanzanian safari with O.A.T. When Alina fell ill and was unable to travel, she urged Hugh to go ahead without her. He did. And on his return, he reported to Alina that he was moved by his visit to the Elerai Primary School in Sinya, Tanzania, which is housed in a straw hut; and by the children he met in the village of Karatu. "I told her I wanted to build them a new school," he said, "and she told me, 'Why don't you do something for the people instead?'"

Hugh did. When Alina passed away, he established the Thurnauer Family Scholarship in her memory and made a pledge of $25,000 to provide secondary school scholarships for students from three Karatu primary schools and the Elerai Primary School. It was a groundbreaking program for Grand Circle Foundation, which hadn’t previously given out scholarships. In appreciation of Hugh’s generosity, Harriet and Alan Lewis invited Hugh to attend the Foundation’s annual banquet in 2008, where they surprised him with the very first Washburn Award—and offered to match his gift.

Bradford Washburn, the American explorer, mountaineer, and photographer, served on Grand Circle Foundation’s Honorary Board of Directors until his death in 2007. Harriet and Alan named their new award in honor of their friend, and invited his widow, Barbara Washburn, to present it to Hugh at the banquet.

They didn’t realize that Brad Washburn happened to be one of Hugh’s personal heroes—who Hugh had met at a book signing more than 70 years ago. Between this, the opportunity to swap stories with Barbara, and—above all—the Foundation’s matching $25,000 gift, it was a day Hugh would never forget.

Over the years, just as Hugh kept in touch with the Foundation, so have the students whose lives have been changed by his scholarships. In fact, just after we learned of Hugh’s passing, we received a letter from a student named Baba, who recently graduated secondary school and is about to take Tanzania’s national exam to enter advanced level studies.

“The aim of writing this letter to you is to say thanks to you for helping me in different ways, because if it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have been in Secondary School and I am sure that this good opportunity will make me a savior of my family…. I have never been chased from class for not paying the school fees. Our Mama Sandra [Grand Circle Foundation Project Manager] pays it on time. I have got nothing to pay you, but I pray to God to keep you alive and always make you successful in life and making me do excellently in my studies. I would like to let you know that this is my last year being in ordinary level, and I look forward to joining advanced level after passing National Examination.”

While it saddens us that Hugh never received this letter, we take heart in the knowledge that so many students before Baba were able to share their gratitude. And we’re honored for the opportunity to use Hugh’s final gift to continue his legacy of generosity.

You can meet the people of Tanzania who so inspired Hugh Thurnauer when you join O.A.T. for Safari Serengeti: Tanzania Lodge & Tented Safari. This video highlights just one of the schools supported there by Grand Circle Foundation:

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