Toni Morrison’s former Princeton students remember her strong, warm presence

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is pictured here in this 2012 file photo (Alfred A. Knopf)

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is pictured here in this 2012 file photo (Alfred A. Knopf)

Toni Morrison is being remembered for being one of America’s most beloved writers, and not just because she wrote the novel called “Beloved.”

The grace and wisdom readers found in her books was also experienced by the people who interacted with her, including those she taught at Princeton University. The Nobel Prize winner died Monday night at the age of 88.

Morrison was part of Princeton’s faculty for 17 years. She retired in 2006, but remained a large presence on campus for several years after.

“She revised this university,” said Princeton president Chris Eisgruber in a statement. “Through her scholarly leadership in creative writing and African-American studies, and through her mentorship of students and her innovative teaching, she has inscribed her name permanently and beautifully upon the tapestry of Princeton’s campus and history.”

Elena Sheppard has been a fan of Morrison since she was a teenager. She went to Princeton, in part, because that’s where Morrison taught.

In 2008, she leapt at the chance to take a seminar with her, even though Morrison’s literary stature was daunting.

“I think she understood how we all perceived her, which was with a modicum of fear because of who she was,” said Sheppard, now a graduate student in Brooklyn. “She was so wonderful at assuaging that. It really made the classroom so approachable and warm. That’s hard to do when you’re someone like her.”

Morrison’s influence was so large at Princeton that it was felt even by students who had little to no interaction with her. Andrea Campbell, a native of Boston, went to graduate school at Princeton in the early 2000s. She is now the first black woman to be Boston City Council President.

Her connection with Morrison was limited to one lecture, but she says it had a big impact on her life.

“It was a strong presence, it was an authentic presence, and one I think still serves me to this day of what it means to be a strong black woman, and to stand in that in a very authentic way,” said Campbell.

In 2014, Princeton honored Morrison, then a professor emeritus, by naming one of its buildings after her.

Coincidentally, a new documentary about Morrison, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” is screening this week at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

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