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From the Prairie to the World

In a life committed to international understanding, John Palenberg, F81, never strayed

The American prairie is a land of paradox. Its wide-open spaces beckoned the pioneers. For later generations, that vastness often felt isolating, and so the prairie became a place to leave.

John Palenberg, F81, loved the prairie for both its pull and its push. He grew up in rural Glen Ullin, North Dakota, which still has a population well south of 1,000 today. He was enamored with the exoticness of his German mother: her language, customs and the colorful stamps on letters she received from home. His parents encouraged his curiosity—and a college education. A brilliant student, he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts in history and a minor in Greek from the University of North Dakota in 1977. He then traveled abroad on a Fulbright scholarship to Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, Germany, where he studied the history of the Reformation. He followed that with yet more education: a joint M.A.L.D./J.D. degree offered by the Fletcher School and Harvard Law School, graduating cum laude.

Degrees in hand, and fascinated by Asian culture, he found work as a legal assistant at two Tokyo law firms. Eager to immerse himself in the Japanese culture, he found an able tutor in a young college student, Chieko Kimura; he picked up the new language with characteristic alacrity. Later, after a long-distance friendship with Kimura deepened, he returned to Japan and proposed to her under a blossoming cherry tree.

Palenberg went on to become a partner at an international law firm. Fluent in German and Japanese, he rose to prominence as an international lawyer, working in Tokyo, Frankfurt, and London. Wherever he went, he continued to embrace the full flavor of the place he lived.

Yet he never lost touch with his North Dakota values or his family. He was, at heart, a “small-town person” who was “kind, thoughtful and grateful for the simple things,” says his sister, Janice Luck, who recalls her brother’s nostalgia for his boyhood summers fishing for bullhead catfish at a railroad dam.

“The windswept prairies were always a source of wonder and beauty for John,” adds his sister, Fay VonTilius. “No matter where his life travels took him, North Dakota and his family always grounded him in modesty and humility.”

Palenberg died of cancer in 2014 at age 57. His widow, Chieko Palenberg, says she chose to honor her husband in a way that befits someone whose warmth and curiosity made him a beloved colleague and friend. She created the John C. Palenberg, F81, Endowed Scholarship with a gift matched through the Tufts Financial Aid Initiative. The scholarship will be awarded annually to a Fletcher student from the frontier Midwest, preferably from a rural area, with an interest in international understanding.

“John left his home in North Dakota with a scholarship in hand, and now this scholarship will help others to have their own adventures,” says Chieko Palenberg. “John loved the Fletcher School, and I would like others to have the opportunity to have his experience.

“I want young people to know that if you knock, the door will be ready to open,” she says. “John’s life was like that. His parents didn’t go to college. He had a modest upbringing. But he was always happy and so curious that people loved to help him. I hope that his life will inspire others. He would want Fletcher students to know that nothing should hold you back—just be happy and positive and curious, and you can go far.”