Mary Esther Williams Dasenbrock spent her early years in Michigan and graduated from Vassar College in 1943. While a student there, she happened to hear a speech by Haverford professor Douglas Steere, who was also to head up the Relief and Reconstruction (R&R) program at Haverford College. Later, the chaplain at Vassar recommended she join R&R and that’s how she ended up in the R&R masters’ degree program at Haverford in the fall of 1943. There were 22 members in that first group of R&R students, all but one of whom were women. Only two of them were birthright Quakers, but by 1990, almost all of them were Quakers, which Dasenbrock felt demonstrated the impact of the program. The group was unified by age and socio-economic background and they were well-received by Haverford students. They lived in Language House (2 College Lane) and Professor Manuel Asensio and Elisa Asensio were their house parents.
The R&R curriculum included language (she took Polish & advanced German) and area studies, international relief administration, social case work, bookkeeping and an “applied work” program, as well as philosophy taught by Douglas Steere. Dasenbrock thought Haverford was lenient with them. She wrote her thesis on “Camps for Migrant Laborers…” in 1945, which is now in the college archives. The following summer she spent in a Federal migrant labor camp in Texas, both screening people for communicable diseases and running a day care – even though she never liked children – where everyone spoke Spanish and she didn’t.
Directly after, she was sent to Puerto Rico for 11 months to work in a Quaker Civilian Public Service health clinic. She averred “I never have felt that I was capable for what I was supposed to do….” Upon returning home in 1946, she began work with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and was sent to Poland working on clothing and food distribution. After the relief effort was disbanded, she helped establish a work camp in Poland that succeeded in building a school.
Mary Esther Williams married Henry Dasenbrock in Poland in 1947. Shortly thereafter, they returned to the U.S. and spent a year as directors of a work camp in Mexico. After their children were born, they lived in Ohio and she was asked by the superintendent of schools to help found a college, now a branch of Wright State University. She was on the Board of that college and thought that one of the most worthwhile activities she had ever undertaken. When Henry got a job with AFSC as a fundraiser, they moved to Baltimore, and Dasenbrock volunteered in the local AFSC office. Under the auspices of the AFSC, she was able to go to Poland again in 1958 to lead an international work camp, again building a school. She was the executive of the World Federalist office in Baltimore, then worked with UNICEF. Finally, the family came to live in Haverford and she became a member of Haverford Monthly Meeting. She served on the board of Haverford College from 1979-1990 and worked to raise an R&R Scholarship for the college, all the while keeping the R&R group together through a newsletter that she wrote continuously from the early 1950s. Toward the end of the 90s, she and Henry moved to Quadrangle, a Haverford retirement community. She was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters from Haverford in 2004. Mary Esther Williams Dasenbrock died in March 2011.
This information primarily comes from an oral history interview recorded in 1990. What this summary cannot convey is Dasenbrock’s lively intelligence, self-effacing character and personality so full of a zest for life, but which the interview so amply affords. The interview can be heard at: thesis.haverford.edu/dspace/handle/10066/1644 Unfortunately, the very beginning of the interview conducted by Carolyn Tolles is not on the recording but it is set down here:
Q. I understand, Mary Esther, that you were brought up in Grosse Point, Michigan and graduated from Vassar in 1943. What did you major in?
A. I majored in euthenics and nobody ever knows what that is. It’s from the Greek “well-being.” It was a catch all. I didn’t know what …