July 21, 2000
A Life Rediscovered Justine Randers-Pehrson

Observer Photo by Liz Crotty

Reston Woman Turns to Writing in Retirement
By Liz Crotty Send Mail to Writer
Observer Staff Writer

Reston resident Justine Randers-Pehrson had retired from the federal government after nearly 30 years of working as a librarian, editor and translator when she suddenly found herself embarking on an entirely new career.
Feeling overworked in her job as a freelance translator, she decided to take a much-needed vacation to Europe. But rather than set off to visit typical tourist destinations, she decided to focus her trip on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
What she had intended to be a vacation gradually turned into inspiration for a book. By the time “Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, A.D. 400-700” was published in 1983, Randers-Pehrson had cataloged 20 trips to Europe, funded by her freelance translating work. Her investigation had taken her in helicopters, on donkeys and in fishing boats as she trekked through 22 countries and 90 museums.
Now, at age 90, Randers-Pehrson is still in the midst of her successful writing career. Earlier this month, she published her fourth book, and she is now working on her autobiography.
Although she had written “The Surgeon’s Glove,” a study of the history of medical gloves, in 1960, Randers-Pehrson said she had never dreamed she would make a career out of writing after retirement. But looking back on her life now, she said, everything seems to have led up to it.
When she worked as a librarian at the National Library of Medicine and the Library of Congress, she frequently handled scientific and scholarly books and had to sharpen her researching skills. Her jobs as an editor and translator for the U.S. Office of Technical Services and the U.S. Patent Office made her familiar with geography.
In college, she had learned to read in six languages and she had studied philosophy and sociology. Growing up as an “Army child,” she had traveled frequently throughout her life.
“People these days seem to think the minute they get out of college they have to know exactly what they’re doing, but I don’t think it’s like that,” she said. “Eventually, a lot of different streams come together and you say, ‘Here I have a whole body of knowledge I can use.’”
A 20-year resident of Reston, Randers-Pehrson came to the area from Tidewater, Md., after her husband died. She had read about Reston in newspapers, and “I sort of thought that would be a place I’d like to live,” she said. “I’ve never been sorry I did it.”
From her apartment overlooking Lake Anne, she has spent the past several years devouring books, contacting scholars and researching information on the Internet for her historical studies. Her third book, “Germans and the Revolution of 1848-1849,” began to develop six years ago when her grandson, Reston resident Michael Randers-Pehrson, was getting married.
It is a tradition in the Randers-Pehrson family for the bride to cut the wedding cake with an old sword that once belonged to Justine Randers-Pehrson’s great-great-grandfather. As the tradition was once again carried out, Randers-Pehrson found herself wondering what her ancestor’s life had been like when he came to the United States from Germany.
She attempted to research his life, but couldn’t find enough information. So instead she decided to take a broader perspective: She would look at what had brought so many Germans to America after the failure of the 1848 Revolution in Germany.
A 30-page bibliography in the back of the book testifies to the many hours Randers-Pehrson spent engaged in research at the Library of Congress.
By the time the book was published last year, Randers-Pehrson was brimming with another idea for a book.
This time she would follow one German revolutionist, Adolf Douai, through his revolutionary years in Germany, his imprisonment and his subsequent flight to the United States.
She picked Douai because of his colorful life. Once he arrived in Texas and began working as the editor of an abolitionist newspaper, more threats to his life forced him on the run again. When he arrived in the North, he was recruited by organizers of the new Republican Party, and traveled the country giving speeches in an effort to attract German Americans to the party.
The father of 10 children, he was a teacher, a musician, a composer and the author of 35 books before his death in 1888.
“Adolf Douai, 1819-1888: The Turbulent Life of a German Forty-Eighter in the Homeland and in the United States” was published earlier this month as part of a scholarly series titled “New German-American Studies.” Randers-Pehrson’s last book was also part of the series, and two of her books are now being used as educational textbooks.
With several books under her belt, Randers-Pehrson, who has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, has now turned her attention to chronicling nearly a century’s worth of history through one pair of eyes: her own.
Her autobiography will be titled “Total Recall,” she said, because of her unique ability to remember events and conversations from years ago down to the last detail. She said the book will serve to relate the impact made on her life by all of the major events she has seen over the years and the inventions, from Velcro and microwaves to copy machines and the Internet.
That is the side of history that has always intrigued her, she said: the people who lived through it.
“Being able, with the kind of memory I seem to have, to go back over almost a century––I think it will be fun to do,” she said. “What I’m trying to get through is that there were actually people involved in these things.”

Copyright © 2000 The Herndon Publishing Company