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Elie Wiesel, a 'most extraordinary person' shared his wisdom at Eckerd College

Nobel Peace Prize winner, holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel at Eckerd College on Jan. 21, 1998. [Times (1998)]
Nobel Peace Prize winner, holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel at Eckerd College on Jan. 21, 1998. [Times (1998)]
Published Jul. 3, 2016

With dozens of Eckerd College freshmen seated before him, Elie Wiesel would tell the same story about his mother.

As a boy, he recalled, she would wait for him to scamper home from school. Instead of asking how his day went, she would pry: "What questions do you have today?"

At Eckerd, the Nobel laureate asked his students the same.

"That's a lesson that college freshmen need to hear," Libby Shannon, Eckerd's director of the office for advocacy and gender justice, said Saturday.

RELATE COVERAGE: Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author, is dead at 87

Shannon experienced Wiesel's class as a student in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks. "Really, I think that was as formative for him and has been formative for me, too."

Wiesel, who died Saturday at the age of 87, taught at the private St. Petersburg college as a visiting professor for the past 23 years. He spoke to incoming freshman classes, who were required to read Night, his autobiographical account of the horrors he witnessed in the Nazi concentration camps as a 15-year-old boy. He also taught an intensive one-month course for about 20 students every January that consistently centered on the theme of hope. He taught his last class at Eckerd this year.

Eckerd College released a statement late Saturday lamenting the loss of Wiesel's quiet intensity and message of remembrance, compassion and love.

"The Eckerd Community mourns the loss of this charismatic and dynamic educator who brought the dark experiences of his life during the Holocaust to lecture students about finding hope in the depths of despair," the statement said.

In 1993, Eckerd's then-president Peter Armacost persuaded Wiesel to team-teach a winter term course with the hopes that Wiesel would join Eckerd as a part-time faculty member. The course was titled "Remembering and Forgetting: Political and Ethical Transformation," and it would focus on the "historical consequences of differences."

"It is a rare opportunity for a small liberal arts college to have a Nobel Peace Prize winner in the classroom," Armacost told the St. Petersburg Times. "He's an absolutely wonderful role model. . . . Here's a man who's really involved in the social movements of the day because of the power of his convictions and his persuasive ability."

The school's current president, Donald Eastman, often invited Wiesel over for dinner. They became friends and traded notes on philosophy and politics over home-cooked meals.

"He's just the most remarkable man I've ever met," Eastman said. "I've never talked to a single student in his class who didn't think he was the most extraordinary person they've ever met."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.