In Memoriam: John: "Jack" Bresnan (1927-2006)
John "Jack" Bresnan died on May 24, 2006 after a twelve year fight against Parkinson's disease. During his long career, spanning more than fifty years, Mr. Bresnan made an enormous contribution to Americans' understanding of Southeast Asia. Three core themes defined his interaction with Southeast Asia: economic development and political reform; international assistance to help promote those goals; and U.S. relations with Southeast Asia. He was passionate about his work, always gracious in his manner; he spoke and wrote precisely, directly, and with occasional wryness. At his funeral, his son Mark described his father's love of nature, music, opera, theater, and poetry and his determination "to leave the world a better place for all of us."
Mr. Bresnan, of Irish descent, was born in Philadelphia. His father died when he was fourteen and Jack and his two younger brothers were supported and brought up by their devoted, hardworking mother Helen.
Jack was drafted in 1945, stationed in Panama, and discharged under the G.I. Bill which enabled him to attend La Salle University in Philadelphia where he was editor of an undergraduate newspaper. He received an M.A. in political science from New York University and went to work for United Press International.
Mr. Bresnan joined the Ford Foundation as its assistant representative in Indonesia in 1961 but left shortly before Suharto came to power in 1965. He returned as the Ford Foundation senior representative in 1969 and remained in Indonesia until 1973 when he returned to New York to become the head of the foundation's Office of Asian Pacific Affairs. He retired from this position in 1982. In his thirty years with the Ford Foundation, Mr. Bresnan supported the establishment of social science research institutions in Indonesia and the introduction of high-yield strains of rice, which helped Indonesia achieve self-sufficiency.
In 1982, Mr. Bresnan came to the Weatherhead East Asian Institute to help found and be executive director of the Pacific Basin Studies Program. Until his retirement from this post, in 2005, he shared his wealth of knowledge of Southeast Asia through an active publication schedule that included books such as: Crisis in the Philippines: the Marcos Era and Beyond, Managing Indonesia: the Modern Political Economy, and From Dominoes to Dynamos: the Transformation of Southeast Asia as well as numerous book chapters and articles. Mr. Bresnan also taught courses on Southeast Asia, mentored a younger generation of scholars, and founded the Columbia University Seminar on Southeast Asia in World Affairs, soon to begin its twenty-third year. From 1985 to 1992, Mr. Bresnan worked with Cyrus Vance as staff director of the Williamsburg Conferences that brought together policymakers from the private and public sectors in the United States with counterparts in East Asia and the Pacific.
In 2003, President Megawati Sukarnopatri awarded him Indonesia's most distinguished civilian honor, the Bingtang Jasa Pratama, for contributions to education and research in Indonesia. Two other Americans were previously so honored: the late George McT. Kahin of Cornell University and Clifford Geertz of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
In November, 2005, the Institute held a symposium, "Legacies of Change in Southeast Asia" in his honor (see below under "Conferences") and planned a festschrift publication of the proceedings. The timing of the symposium coincided with the publication of the book, Indonesia: the Great Transition (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), which he edited.
At Mr. Bresnan's funeral in May, a telegram from Juwono Sudarsono was read. Juwono Sudarsono, now Minister of Defense in Indonesia, but once a recipient of a Ford Foundation scholarship during Mr. Bresnan's tenure, wrote: "Jack Bresnan believed in the future of Indonesia's most valuable resource—its diverse human talent from across the islands, from Aceh in the far west to Papua in the far east of Indonesia." The Ford Foundation Social Sciences Development program under Mr. Bresnan, he went on to say, "became a verital forum of constant nation building for the more than 1700 Indonesian social scientists who shared knowledge, skills, and personal experience in trying to gain understanding and meaning of Indonesia and being an Indonesian. To this day, all of those who took part in the [Ford Foundation] program owe Jack a debt of personal as well as professional gratitude. Jack was, and will always remain, an inspiration."
Mr. Bresnan is survived by his wife of fifty-five years, Barbara, four children: Patricia Bresnan McCallion, Peter Bresnan, Mark Bresnan, and Joan Bresnan Popowics, and eight grandchildren.