Professor Buell’s journey


COLLEGE PLACE — In the small town of Prachuap Khiri Khan, as the sun came up over the Gulf of Thailand and squid fisherman came in with their nighttime catch, Montgomery Buell woke every morning to write at a plastic table and chair on the roof of a shop he had converted into a home.

Sometimes his writing was a response to one of the more than 140 books his friends had recommended he read on his Nook. Other times it was to pen reflections of life in the Thai fishing village.

Buell, the Walla Walla University associate professor of history, American economic labor and environmental studies, didn’t exactly expect to be living in a small Thai fishing village. But this journey was no geographical escape. It was a period of personal and professional self-assessment, to think about whether to even continue teaching.

And it was a time for recovery after the death of his wife, Jonna, who had encouraged him to take such a trip.

Jonna Buell was 41 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in October 2008. She and her husband had enjoyed traveling together in the past, and not knowing how long they would have together she helped him plan a special trip.

“It’s something we did over time. How I was going to be able to afford it, when the timing would be right,” said Buell. “She also was very wise and just told me that after she died I was going to need something like that. I wasn’t going to have a chance to heal if I didn’t do something like that.”

After a 13-month battle, Jonna died Nov. 21, 2009. Buell continued teaching and focused on being a father, seeing that all three of his daughters would get into college.

“(He) is an amazing and involved father,” Buell’s daughter Alexandra said, “... someone I can always go to, be open with, trust, and talk to.”

In 2012 the time was right for him to finally take the break he and Jonna had planned. Soon after he was heading out of Seattle in a no-frills rented cabin on the French container ship Figaro, with one bag of SCUBA gear and one for “everything else,” he said.

“I don’t think there are a lot of ways to literally get to the middle of nowhere. But that’s certainly one with very few people around,” he said.

Heading west across the Pacific, he learned sailing skills from the French and Romanian crew. He said he assumed the trip would change him, and he was open to even extreme change to his lifestyle.

Not only did Buell know he might not want to teach any more, but he also was open to not coming back to the United States at all. He figured the sea and a complete break in lifestyle would guide his future.

After multiple ports with the cargo ship, Buell disembarked in Johor Bahru, in southern Malaysia. His plans were open and, in a series of train rides, he found Prachuap, south of Bangkok on the peninsula Thailand shares with Myanmar to the east.

And there he settled.

Life in the fishing village provided him a way to see the world in a way a regular “tourist trap” couldn’t. He could see and interact with people of a different religion and culture close up.

“When it’s not in a drive-by touristy way you begin to understand things a lot better. And you start seeing people not as caricatures, but as real people with a sense of humor and the same sorts of struggles.” Buell said.

“You start getting integrated into the community. All of a sudden you’re seeing things that nobody sees if they’re just passing through or doing the ‘tourist’ stuff.”

In time, it became obvious to Buell there wasn’t a serious temptation in him to take his career in a different direction. Solely researching and writing would be enticing, but he knew it would be hard to make a living.

Despite some parts of the professorial life being less than ideal, just like any job, he realized he still loved it.

“I love history,” Buell said. “I love being a historian. I like doing the research. I like doing the writing. I love being in the classroom.”

Decision made, he flew back west through Sri Lanka, Dubai, Spain, London and Seattle. In the fall of 2013 he returned at WWU.

“We’re delighted he’s back,” said Gregory Dodds, chair of WWU’s Department of History, who added the department missed him but also supported his break. “He’s a great teacher and colleague.”

Atom Malak, a student in Buell’s Craft of History class, thinks so, too.

“(He) wants us to be successful.” Malak said. “He’s quite funny ... doesn’t even try when you think about it. But he’s serious, too, when he wants students to work. He’s not going to mess around.”

Since his return, Buell has given a few presentations at the university, sharing pictures and stories of his journeys to pass on some of his experience.

“The different things I talk about might cause people to think about how they might be able to live their lives in a better way,” he said.

Now that he’s home, Buell has incorporated things he learned on his journey into his own life as well.

“I try to deliberately slow my life down and not fill it with doing, doing, doing all the time,” he said. “And my down time, not filling it with just noise or trivia.”

That means walking where and when he can, and soaking in the moment.

“Just being able to see the world not going 500 mph is interesting,” the teacher said. “Once you’ve slowed, there’s a lot of peace you can find in trying to drain off the extraneous things.”

Trevor Boyson is a Walla Walla University senior who will graduate this year with a degree in business administration and an emphasis in marketing. He will start an MBA program at George Fox University in the fall. He can be reached at


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