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."
I thought of Jenny this week – a random thought stirred a memory, and I realized it was of her. I only knew her for a short time. Our parents met on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, probably between 1975 and 1978. My parents spent summers there from about 1970 to 1985. Jenny and I were teenagers when we met, and we hit it off right away. She was a vivacious and warm person who naturally attracted others to her, and despite the short time we spent together, I still remember her fondly and of course was so shocked to learn of her death a few years later. When I remembered her this week, it occurred to me to search for her story on the internet, even though she died years before the internet was widely available. I was sad to learn the actual truth of her death, but happy to read more about her life and her impact. The story I heard about her death had been incomplete and inaccurate. But what I knew of her was reflected and magnified in the stories I found, including the ones told in the comments here. I found her father, Steven’s obituary from 2019, but I couldn’t find anything about her mother, Gail, except what’s written here. If anyone knows anything of her mother, or wants to share more, please comment here and I’ll be notified. I’m not sure she would remember me, but I remember her.
I actually had dinner with Gail last night and learned more about her and her family! As a result, I conducted a google search this morning and read your entry. I will call Gail this morning and tell her about your entry.
She is well, living in a retirement community and very active! I hope a reconnect can be arranged, but don’t know how to make it a bit more private – this forum is pretty public!
I knew Jenn Rubin while I was in high school. She was indeed special. She had a kindness, an energy and a sort of joy that just bounced around with her. When I learned of her death years ago, it took me hard. She was someone I hoped I would get to see again.
There was a night when she had sang the chorus from “Box of Rain” by Phil Lesh. Her voice was extraordinary. That song has become sacred, with her memory.
I knew Jennifer well in high school. I would like to nominate her for the Distinguished Alumni Award at Choate Rosemary Hall, our high school.
Until very recently, the award had never been given posthumously; it was recently bestowed upon another friend of mine who died in Afghanistan. Please contact me if you knew Jenny in college or in the Peace Corp. I will most likely need to gather information from those who worked with her in the Peace Corps and college to get the process started. I wrote her parents a letter after I heard of her death and I told them that in all things beautiful I saw Jenny… I still do and have never forgotten her.
Thanks for your help.
Jamie Walter, Choate Class of 1979.
Thinking about the class tree and remembering Jen Rubin…
Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers » Blog Archive » Jennifer Rubin
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.”
Like · · Unfollow Post · Share · 3 hours ago near Livermore, CA
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Jake Dillon I didn’t know Jen real well, but what a story. Very sad.
3 hours ago · Like · 1
Geoffrey Knauth Amen.
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Nico Miller wow, thanks michaela for the rush of warmth the memory of having know jen even a little brings back. i havent thought of her for decades now, but the memory of her sweetness feels like yesterday. i can’t help but wonder if her spirit was set free so young to continue her work in some other form, rather than the more trivial pursuits most of us have been caught up in for so many of these years. i can only prey that her loved ones have found some way of keeping jen’s joy alive and escape the suffering of her absence. i can only say, from reading her parent’s words, that there is something to be said for those who pass on doing what they love regardless of their age, rather than dying at their desk in some silly office building from stress or poor health. If anyone is in touch with Melissa/Robin Chesnut-Tangerman-s Jenny Rubin Memorial Prize Scholarship please holler. Perhaps we can get info about the scholarship and even post the footage of jen on this page or a link to it. bless~~ nico
Hi Nico – I love your comment about perhaps Jenny having other work to do being the reason she left us so early. It is what I believe. Please reply to my email and I’d love to tell you more about the Jenny Rubin prize. So glad you wrote!
Hi there,so sorry for the loss of your friend jenny so long ago.i live in cape breton nova scotia,my wife and i were born here,one of our favourite places to visit is whale cove,Cape Breton.That is where i came upon jennys’ head stone in the local cemetery.i understand why someone would choose to rest here,i still tear up while marvelling at the beauty of our natural beauty.She must have been some special gal,so honourable she chose to do good in this world.I,as a caper,am honoured the family would choose our beautiful island to welcome Jenny.Thank you,mick morrison,Cape Breton.