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Newly arrived from Germany, I formed a friendship with a classmate who became a legendary author: Toni Morrison, MA ’55

By Horst Kruse, MA ’54

Seventy years ago, I entered Cornell as a foreign student—a member of the first class of Fulbrighters from Germany—for a year of graduate study in American literature.

Also participating in challenging classes, a research seminar, and survey courses taught by Robert Elias (who eventually was to become our thesis advisor) was a Black student named Chloe “Toni” Wofford—a scholarship student like myself—from Lorain, OH.

Both of us were living off campus, so we would regularly go for breakfast in Willard Straight Hall after morning classes during our second semester and talk about what had been discussed that day and also about the papers we were preparing—such as on William Faulkner, in her case, and Henry James, in mine.

Horst Kruse, MA ’54

We also openly shared our disappointments, and I recall Toni telling me that in her dismay over a poor grade that she had received she went to see Elias in his office hours and there actually broke into tears. But then they went over her paper together, and in the end Elias concluded that she might well revise what she had written and then try to publish it—a suggestion that made her proud.

Our conversations over breakfast extended to the news as provided in the Daily Sun, often touching on current matters such as the civil rights movement and the McCarthy hearings.

Horst Kruse, MA ’54, by the Charles River in Boston as a Cornell student
Kruse in Boston during his time as a Cornell student.

Toni also shared her joy at having had a letter from her father, in one instance, and she took delight in telling me of an episode she had observed in her downtown Ithaca neighborhood: a wedding being celebrated, while through a nearby open window was heard a loud recording of Eartha Kitt singing “I Want to Be Evil.”

All in all, my conversations with Toni were the kind of interactions that can help turn study abroad into a truly unforgettable experience—an invaluable experience, in my case, coming, as it did, from someone remembered for her charm, intelligence, good-humor, and gentleness.

We exchanged addresses at the end of the academic year, and I still keep the slip of paper on which she noted her downtown Ithaca address. But, as it turned out, we were too intent on following our busy careers to stay in touch.

Trying to reconnect with her in the late 1980s, I consulted a Cornell directory and gasped in surprise when I found a cross-reference to Toni Morrison, the famous writer.

All in all, my conversations with Toni were the kind of interactions that can help turn study abroad into a truly unforgettable experience.

We did not get to see each other again in person until the end of 1999, at a reception in the American Consulate General in Hamburg, prior to her reading from Paradise to a capacity audience at the Thalia Theater.

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We talked about our times at Cornell and about what had happened to us since. More importantly—in terms of my present account as a story of Cornell—we also got to talk about Elias (an emeritus professor by then) with whom I had begun to exchange an occasional mail, and whose address she had lost.

Toni Morrison
Morrison during a campus visit in 2013. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

It gratifies me that I was able subsequently to put them in touch again. And it is equally a part of this story of Cornell that the reception was being held in the very room (the historic ballroom) in which, in 1953, I had obtained my student visa for the United States.

Toni also signed my copy of Song of Solomon, and I treasure her inscription: For Horst / from Toni Morrison / Fond Memories.

Fond memories, indeed.

P.S.: There is a pack of dogs in Chapter 10 of Song of Solomon, Weimaraners all, which explains why two are called by a German name: Helmut and—Horst. Toni assured me that the latter does not hearken back to me.

Horst Kruse, MA ’54, is professor emeritus of English and American Literature and former head of American Studies at Germany’s University of Münster. His books include Mark Twain and “Life on the Mississippi” and F. Scott Fitzgerald at Work: The Making of “The Great Gatsby.” He has been an active member of the Cornell Club of Germany since its founding.

All photos provided, unless otherwise indicated.

Published November 7, 2023


  1. Natalie H. Prokop, Class of 1999

    What a fabulous article! My Dad graduated from Cornell with an English degree in 1952, and apparently knew Harold Bloom, but he left before Toni Morrison was there. I graduated from Cornell in 1999 with a degree in American Studies. During my time there I took a course where we read all of Toni Morrison’s books up until that time and have since read all the rest. My favorite was Song of Solomon, which I wrote a paper about at Cornell. I loved reading about your experience. Thank you for sharing!

    • Horst Kruse

      Thank you so much for your response. Yes, Cornell was—and is—a great place for meeting people. I recall that when working as an assistant in Uris Library, in the summer of 1954, I met a man at the basement back entrance who handed over a box of books in Russian and challenged me to read out and note their titles. It was, as I later learned, none other than Vladimir Nabokov, then at work on both Lolita and Pnin, chapter 6 of the latter to open with what is a favorite quotation of mine: “The 1954 Fall Term had begun. […] Again in the margins of library books earnest freshmen inscribed such helpful glosses as ‘Description of Nature,’ or ‘Irony’; and in a pretty edition of Mallarmé’s poems an especially able scholiast had already underlined in violet ink the difficult word ‘oiseaux’ and scrawled above it ‘birds.’”

  2. John Sulpizio, Class of 1969

    I, too, am proud of Toni Morrison’s accomplished career, and for no other reason than we both came from a little hard scrabble blue collar town of Lorain, Ohio. She grew up around the corner from our homestead and not far from the iron ore docks. Although she preceded me, it’s nice to know we not only shared a hometown, but also an University.

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