It is not the custom of this newsletter to mark the passing of Fulbrighters. Perhaps we should, as the world is diminished each time we lose a member of our extraordinary community.
But sometimes, that loss is so painful, when that person is young, that we should pause, grieve and remember. This is one such moment, which I share for personal reasons—and so ask your forgiveness.
On April 23, a bright light was lost, a “sunshine” extinguished with the death of Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick, a Fulbrighter to Hungary. Charity was an exceptional soprano with a promising career when, 15 years ago, she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a fatal condition that made singing nearly impossible.
She later told the story of the journey that followed—barely surviving one double lung transplant and then another, enduring family tragedies, and then suffering from skin cancer—in her memoir “The Encore.” And yes, she did sing again, gloriously. That story is documented better than I can by the Washington Post, the BBC, CBS News, CNN, and NY Daily News.
I first met Charity when she came to my office at Johns Hopkins University to ask my help to apply for a Fulbright to Hungary. She came from a prominent Hungarian-American family—her grandfather was longtime congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, a native of Budapest—and she wanted to study at the Liszt Academy there. It took two attempts, but she did go on that Fulbright.
Like many of us, she did not expect the experience she lived. While she did study voice at the Academy, she gained insight into the challenges posed by a repressive political regime. In 2017, she shared that experience—and her extraordinary singing talents—as the keynote speaker at the Fulbright Association’s annual conference.
In her address, she saw the parallels between the physical challenges of her transplants and the cultural challenges of international exchange:
As we engage in the communities we visit, the Fulbright tempers the immune system and the fellow is the transplant, allowing foreign to sit with the native, bringing vital tools for the future and reciprocating with a chance for a new understanding of life.
I saw her one last time, only months ago. She clearly was losing her battles, but it never occurred to me to worry or to say goodbye. It was impossible to think that someone so vivacious, so optimistic, so thoroughly joyous to be alive could ever die. Yet here we are, and the Fulbright world is less bright today as we lose one of our most extraordinary talents, taken from us far too soon.