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'She treasured Lorain, we treasured her': Nobel laureate Toni Morrison dies at 88 (UPDATED/PHOTOS)

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    Toni Morrison sits on a bench dedicated to her in Oberlin in 2009.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE FILE

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    FILE-- 2012 Author Toni Morrison attends a reading of her book "Home" at Finney Chapel of Oberlin College. The Lorain native and Nobel laureate died Monday at the age of 88.

    STEVE MANHEIM / CHRONICLE FILE

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    Toni Morrison pictured in Lorain's Hall of Fame in Black River Historical Society's Moore House Museum.

    CHUCK HUMEL

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    FILE -- 2009 Toni Morrison speaks as she looks over the large crowd at the unveiling of the Bench by the Road at the corner of Lorain and Main in Oberlin.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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    FILE -- Lorain Native and author Toni Morrison at Oberlin College.

    CHUCK HUMEL

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    Lorain Native and author Toni Morrison smiles during a reading of her work at Oberlin College.

    CHUCK HUMEL

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    FILE 2009 -- Pulitzer winner Toni Morrison watches as Kristal Boyd of the Oberlin College dance group Diaspora/Ilu Aiye performs in Oberlin.

    BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE

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ELYRIA — Before she was one of the nation’s largest literary figures, Toni Morrison was Chloe Wofford, a little girl from Lorain.

The author and Nobel Prize honoree died Monday night in a hospital in New York. She was revered for her writing across the world, but in Lorain, she was something extra special.

“It’s a huge loss,” said Cheri Campbell, reference librarian at Lorain Public Library. “Even though she didn’t live here, she treasured Lorain, we treasured her. I think we treasured her in return, not just Lorain but the whole county, the whole state, the whole world. But especially us in Lorain because we knew what she came from. We live here, so we know what she came from, and we know what her world was like. “

Morrison grew up during the Great Depression, born to George and Ramah Wofford Feb. 18, 1931.

She graduated Lorain High School and graduated Howard University in 1953. She received her master’s degree from Cornell University. She married Harold Morrison in 1958 and they had two sons before divorcing in 1968.

She once worked at Lorain Public Library, starting as a shelfer and ending up in the director’s office.

Her earliest home, at 2245 Elyria Ave., still is standing, but later she moved in and out of several rented homes. She changed her name in college to Toni, a play on her middle name, Anthony, and Morrison, from her marriage.

She went on to write 11 books, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, becoming the first African American woman to do so, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Morrison came back to Lorain for several occasions. She attended book readings at Oberlin College, a bench dedication in Oberlin and a library reading room dedication at Lorain Public Library.

Despite her world renown, she still was a private person, Geoff Pingree, a cinema studies professor at Oberlin College said. He worked with Morrison on a documentary called “The Foreigner’s Home,” and said Morrison would often say, “Chloe is a private person, Toni writes the books.”

He said she was very uninterested in talking about her own life. She never wrote a memoir, and had no plans to do so.

During the filming of the documentary, Pingree said they never fawned over her, which Morrison respected. She disliked and tired of flattery and was extremely no-nonsense.

Morrison would not be described as a warm person, Pingree said, but she knew herself very well and didn’t try to be who others thought she should be.

Pingree said she struck him as a solitary figure. Although she had lots of friends, she kept sorrow and grief to herself and preferred the solitude. Morrison lost her son, Slade, when he was 45. She had an affinity for butterflies in remembrance of him.

Morrison was a powerful figure in the African American community, but Pingree said she wanted to write first as a human being and apply her work to all people.

“It’s hard to put a value on how important she was to the black community,” Pingree said. “She said powerful things to a black community, but she said it universally.”

She likely was aware of her influence in the world, but Pingree said she didn’t think much about what others thought. Morrison held onto her work, and worked until she couldn’t work anymore.

Her last published book was her 11th, “God Help the Child,” in April 2015.

Morrison grew up in Lorain, which was a diverse place for her. There, she interacted with people that came from different lives and backgrounds. Children did not attend segregated schools in Lorain.

Her parents played a crucial role in her background. She learned that she didn’t have to take it if people treated her unfairly; that she was an equal to them.

Pingree said Morrison’s awakening to racial injustice and inequality wasn’t until she went to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University. It was truly her first introduction to segregation.

Pingree said that even recently, she was very open to what young people were doing and saying, a rarity among that generation, he said. Morrison was interested in hip-hop, and even listened to Kendrick Lamar.

“She was very in touch with what was happening in the world,” Pingree said.

Representative Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, whose district includes parts of Lorain County, including Lorain, called Morrison Ohio’s “first lady of literature,” and said she gave voice to millions of people who needed one.

“Toni Morrison knew the immense power that words hold and she courageously used her gift for storytelling to inspire countless millions and give voice to marginalized women the world over,” Kaptur said in a statement. “Toni Morrison was truly a daughter of America — Lorain’s gift to the world.”

Lorain’s gift to the world solidified a name for the International City among literary circles and historians alike. Its streets and landmarks are found in her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” repeated again in a recent biopic, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” which came to the city during its filming.

“Toni’s always going to be Lorain’s, not just the library’s, not just the Historical Center’s, not just Lorain history,” Campbell said. “She’s always going to be a force, living or dead.”

The Lorain Public Library is hosting an evening of remembrance 6:30 p.m. Aug. 14 in the Toni Morrison Reading Room. Attendees are invited to talk about their favorite Morrison works, relive any memories or listen to readings and discussions surrounding the literary figure’s life and works.

Contact Laina Yost at lyost@chroniclet.com. Contact Carissa Woytach at Cwoytach@chroniclet.com.


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