The American Center for Mongolian Studies (ACMS) lost one of its founders and greatest supporters on November 3, 2019, when Mary Ellen Lane, the Executive Director Emeriti of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC) died after an extended illness. While many in the ACMS community may not be aware of Mary Ellen’s role, it is safe to say that without Mary Ellen Lane, the ACMS would not exist. Anyone who has received a fellowship from the ACMS, utilized ACMS services, attended a speaker series event or otherwise benefited from the existence of the ACMS owes a debt of gratitude to Mary Ellen for her role in helping launch and sustain both the ACMS and the larger set of American Overseas Research Centers, now in over 27 countries around the world. (See the CAORC dedication to Mary Ellen here: https://www.caorc.org/mary-ellen-lane)
When I first heard of about the concept of American Overseas Research Centers (AORC) in summer 2000 from John Woods of the University of Chicago and Professor Bira at IAMS, I decided that Mongolia needed to have a Center of its own – an organization that could serve as a support center for visiting academics and help build the capacity of local scholars and institutions. To investigate whether this might be possible, I travelled to Washington DC in spring 2001 to meet with Mary Ellen Lane – the long serving Executive Director of CAORC.
Mary Ellen met my wife Frances and I in her office, and listened intently as I explained my vision for the organization that became the ACMS. She later explained that she thought I was absolutely crazy to launch a Center in a small country such as Mongolia, and she thought I was far too young and inexperienced to make it work. But she thought the idea sounded like good fun and an adventure, so she offered to help out and come along for the ride. At the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) meetings in Washington DC in March 2002 we co-hosted an organizational meeting that brought together interested scholars and we worked out the ACMS name and the foundational charter. I then led the creation of the 501c3 non-profit corporation in April 2002 and recruited our first institutional and individual members and launched our website, newsletter and first set of programs.
As I was developing the ACMS, Mary Ellen invited me to attend the CAORC Directors meeting in Tangier, Morocco in 2002, which allowed me to meet the Directors of other 15 or so American Overseas Research Centers and begin to develop a network of colleagues at other AORCs who served as mentors and friends as we developed a vision and operational plan for the ACMS. Based on their help and advice I prepared the first ACMS proposal for the Department of Education’s Title VI American Overseas Research Center grant competition. In 2003 we were the first new AORC in many years to be granted Department of Education Title VI funding, and in May 2004 we used this funding to set up our permanent office in Ulaanbaatar, which has now been operating for more than 15 years.
Over the years I travelled with Mary Ellen and her husband, Colin Davies, to several CAORC centers, including those in India, Cambodia, and Senegal. I learned a great deal about the operations of these AORCs during our travels, but most of all I made many lifelong friends who continue to play a role in the development of the ACMS. Mary Ellen had a crucial role in helping the ACMS secure fellowship funding through the US State Department (which continues), and she made sure ACMS was involved in several joint projects with CAORC, such as a grant that helped us develop our ACMS Research Library. Former ACMS Overseas and US Director Brian White played a key role working for both the ACMS and CAORC on a variety of projects, a partnership that allowed us to establish our first US Director’s office at the University of Wisconsin.
At the ACMS we knew we had come of age when we were accepted as a full member of CAORC in 2008, and in 2011 ACMS was selected as the host institution for the CAORC Directors meeting. The CAORC meeting in Mongolia brought over 50 visitors from around the world, many representing AORCs in countries conquered by the Mongols! We treated them nicely and travelled on a historical tour across the steppes to Kharkhorin and other locations. Mary Ellen and Colin were given a horse as a gift by a local herder in honor of their leadership role in helping to found the ACMS, a gift that led to a great many stories and jokes over the years as other leaders such as Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush and Hilary Clinton were also given horses as gifts. I am sure all these gift horses are now enjoying a life of leisure and retirement amidst the green grass and blue skies of the Mongolian countryside.
In 2014 Mary Ellen Lane earned her retirement after 28 years of leading CAORC. I was able to attend her retirement celebration at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where CAORC has its offices (in the same building as our very own ACMS President, Bill Fitzhugh). Even in retirement Mary Ellen continued to check in on the ACMS, and her horse, and my family, and we stayed in touch through visits in Washington and at AAS meetings around the country where the ACMS and other Asian AORCs such as the centers in India, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and Indonesia regularly have their annual meetings.
Mary Ellen leaves a lasting legacy through the many research centers she helped found and develop, and the many friendships she developed over the years with scholars from around the world. Building and sustaining an organization such as CAORC, and the ACMS, requires many, many hours of commitment by the staff and volunteers, and there is never enough funding to adequately compensate people for the time they must devote to the task. At the end of the day non-profit organizations are built and maintained through friendships and joint dedication to a cause. While Mary Ellen played a key role in the development of the ACMS and other AORCs through her help with organization and funding, more than anything it was the friendship and support she offered to me and many others in the CAORC family that made the difference and sustained our spirits and kept us dedicated to the success of the organizations.
When I learned earlier this fall that Mary Ellen’s cancer had returned and her body was failing her, I knew I wanted to make one last visit to honor her and Colin and all my friends at CAORC. I was not sure if I would make it in time, but one week before her death I was able to spend a Sunday morning with Colin, Mary Ellen, her cousin and the hospice caregiver, reminiscing about old times and discussing our shared heritage of growing up in the south (Mary Ellen in North Carolina and myself in Texas), being active in the Methodist church and watching our children grow up to be accomplished individuals. While Mary Ellen’s physical presence was diminished, the stories in the room and the twinkle in her eye offered a reminder of her enduring spirit and the influence she had on so many lives.
While I will miss her huge smile, her incomparable introductions, and her wise counsel, I know her legacy will live on in the scholars who make new discoveries due to the existence of the ACMS and other AORCs. Mary Ellen’s spirit has left her earthly body, but the next time I am in Mongolia, I will say a little prayer of thanks to my friend Mary Ellen, and wish her and Colin’s horse a special blessing as it gallops freely through the green grass and blue skies of the eternal steppe.
Victoria, BC, November 6, 2019