Dedicated community member dies at 105, leaves behind endowed scholarship, legacy of service

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Alma celebrating with her adopted son, Samir Ashrawi, who immigrated to the United States and attended St. Edward’s University with her help. 

Staff Writer

In Alma Pearl Hanson’s extensive funeral file with St. Edward’s University Campus Ministry that has morphed since the 1980s, she requested a simple funeral because she was plain like “vanilla.”

She had already selected the music and arranged the fine details. She requested that the pallbearers be close to her, but she wanted to make sure that whoever helped with her burial would not hurt their back. 

“If you want a fruitful life to a happy old age like my mother had, learn to love and love to serve,” her son, Brother Jim Hanson said.

Alma was 105 when she died. Her funeral was celebrated at Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel — one of her favorite spots at St. Edward’s — on Jan. 20. She was a devout Catholic and religiously attended the 10:30 Sunday morning mass on campus. She prided herself on promoting global responsibility and believed passionately in a St. Edward’s education.

Her son attended St. Edward’s and after graduating taught theology during the ‘70s and ‘80s. She was one of the first donors to the chapel renovation project, and a donation by Alma made a restoration of the grotto possible in the ’70s.

When there was a lecture, symposium or performance on campus, it was rare that Alma was not in attendance. She read a hard copy of Hilltop Views each week. She has an endowed, need-based scholarship in her name, and she firmly believed that education should be a lifelong pursuit and can change lives. 

“Alma’s impact was in helping students through scholarships while also serving as a caring and interested role model for the recipients. Nothing energized her more than her contact with students… her presence, along with her passion to live life fully, is what we’ll miss the most,” President George E. Martin said.  

In the early ‘70s, Alma’s son was studying at an ecumenical center in Jerusalem, and Alma went to visit him. While in the Middle East, she met Samir Ashrawi, a young man from a poor background who worked as a receptionist and was trying to save money to go to college. Samir instantly struck Alma as a bright individual with potential but a lack of opportunity. His fluent English and conversational Hebrew and French impressed Alma.

“Mother was very perceptive of minds and hearts. She knew Samir was a good person, and her sense of social justice came flying up,” Jim said.  

Exactly 41 years ago, on Jan. 20, 1974, Samir arrived in the United States by way of John F. Kennedy International Airport. He had $250 and an opportunity from Alma. She brought him to the United States and paid for his education at St. Edward’s. Samir also won scholarship money from the university. 

Speaking at the reception after Alma’s funeral while choking back tears, Samir thanked Alma, his second mom, for all that she had done for his family.

“Just when I thought all the doors were closed to me, Alma opened the window. Alma gave me a hand up, not a handout,” Samir said.

Alma was what Samir called a “lifetime learner.” She audited classes at St. Edward’s until she was in her 90s and even took many of her son’s theology courses. She strived to have a global understanding and requested that her funeral be held in three languages — English, Spanish and Arabic — to unite her families. Her son currently lives in Mexico where he has devoted his life to being a Brother of Juan Diego.

Although Alma only spoke English, Samir said she could uniquely communicate with people.

“She spoke a human language. She spoke a broader language that reached others,” he said. 

Two of Samir’s daughters have also attended St. Edward’s: Yara Ashrawi graduated in 2011 and Raneem Ashrawi is a junior English writing and rhetoric major. Raneem is also currently the news editor for Hilltop Views.

“Grandma always reminded us about what my parents have been through and accomplished. She always challenged me and knew we could be exceptional,” Raneem said.