Jennifer Rubin '83 with children in the village of Defale,Togo.
"The walls of her house were absolutely lined with greeting cards the kids had
made for her," recalls her Peace Corps director in Togo. "She was a star."
From Hamilton Online Review, Fall 2007
Jennifer Rubin '83 (Togo, 1983-84)
In early 1984, CBS sent a film crew to Togo to interview Peace Corps volunteers and ask them to reflect on the larger meaning of their service. The footage of their time in Defale, a small, rural village, captures Jenny Rubin barefoot, ankle-deep in clay, surrounded by village women. Together, the women pack the moist clay into wide, donut shaped-mounds, sculpting earth-based stoves that will reduce their need for firewood, saving them valuable time and energy. Jenny smiles freely – a big, dimple-laden smile – appearing, somehow, both relaxed and intense about the work she is doing.
"A lot of the volunteers here, myself included," she says on film, "feel that it's very important to have some input, to make an impact somewhere." The camera follows her, listening in as she communicates with the women in both French and Lamba, the local dialect, praising them for packing the clay just so.
"It was very important for her to do something for the women of the country, who bore a great burden," says Jenny's mother, Gail Rubin, when asked what motivated her daughter to take on that particular project. "That's why the stoves appealed to her, because it would ease their burden."
According to Bill Piatt, Jenny's country director in Togo, she was originally assigned to be a school garden volunteer. But early in her training she'd done some research into clay-based, wood-conserving stoves, and requested a job change to make their construction her primary assignment. She'd already spoken with more seasoned volunteers and had even met with local officials, identifying someone in the Ministry of Social Affairs who could train her. Her initiative and organization made a sizable impression on Piatt, particularly given how recently she'd arrived in the country. "She had everything all lined up," he remembers incredulously. "I'm still not sure how she pulled all that off."
Jenny was born in Louisiana in 1961 to parents active in the civil rights movement. Her father Steven is reluctant to ascribe motives to Jenny's decision to join the Peace Corps, but he does acknowledge that her surroundings made her sensitive from an early age to the world's many injustices. "The Peace Corps seemed like a natural thing for her to do," he says. "She was actually thinking of making it a career and applying to be a staff member after her tour was over." Her mother adds, "She really was where she wanted to be."
Piatt says the people of Defale appreciated Jenny's many contributions to village life. "They loved her," he remembers. "The walls of her house were absolutely lined with greeting cards the kids had made for her. She was a star."
She was also a prolific letter writer, an accomplished weaver, a poet and a loyal friend, says Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman '82, who corresponded regularly with Jenny from her own Peace Corps post in Kenya. "She was just so vibrant."
In June 1984, roughly a year after she arrived in Togo, two men from a neighboring village killed Jenny in her home. They had been recruited by a young woman whom Jenny had discovered stealing from her. A senseless, brutal act of violence, and Jenny Rubin was gone.
And yet, even 23 years after her death, her legacy continues to shine bright. Thanks to Chesnut-Tangerman, several classmates and a supportive administration, the Jenny Rubin Memorial Prize Scholarship has been awarded year after year, honoring "a senior woman who has evinced interest in, and ongoing commitment to, helping others improve their lives." Along with a cash gift, the honoree receives a copy of a 10-minute DVD, which includes clips of the original CBS footage. And there's Jenny on screen — barefoot, hands and feet caked with clay, smiling, reflective, content.
"Jenny was the real thing," Chesnut-Tangerman says, trailing off. She and her husband Robin Chesnut-Tangerman '82 named their first child, a daughter, after their mutual friend.
As the CBS footage from Defale draws to a close, the reporter asks Jenny if she ever wonders whether her contribution might just be a drop in the bucket.
"Yes," she nods her head slowly, considering. "Yes. Yeah, I do. But a drop in the bucket is what I can do."
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