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Teofilo Ruiz captivates students with stories of revolution, hope

His eyes seem to be the windows to his soul. Recounting the events of his life, he smiles at certain memories and his eyes twinkle with happiness. Other memories cause his eyes to cloud over as he seems to lose himself in his thoughts.

With his silver hair and thick eyebrows, history professor Teofilo Ruiz GS '74, affectionately known as Teo, has the distinguished air of a revered scholar. However, when he talks and jokes with his thick Cuban accent, he proves to be so down-to-earth and modest that it is difficult to believe that he has experienced things in his life that most people have only read about in books.


Currently, Ruiz is teaching "The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition, 1000-1700," a class so popular that it has been closed with 321 students.

His wealth of eclectic experiences and thoughtful nature make him a resource both students and colleagues treasure while he is still here at the University.

Born in Cuba, Ruiz was active during a turbulent time for Cuba. "I grew up in the romance of the Revolution," he said. At the mere age of 17, he was already actively fighting against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. "In Cuba, you are older earlier than they are here," he said.

"When a friend was killed in 1960, I resigned the revolution," Ruiz said. Thereafter, Ruiz was thrown in jail, only to be set free because of the number of prisoners arrested during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Unlike most Americans, who at the age of 18 leave their homes for college, in 1961 Ruiz was leaving his native country for Miami with only three changes of clothing, $45, a box of Cuban cigars to sell and a Spanish translation of Jacob Burckhardt's "A History of Greek Civilization."

"My lifestyle in Cuba was much like yours is now," Ruiz said. However, once in Miami, he suddenly found himself living off powdered eggs and milk, Spam and a very limited budget. "We first worked as painters at a hotel, paid 90 cents per hour, seven days a week . . . then, we worked in a sugar mill for 14 hours a day, seven days a week, also for 90 cents an hour."


In 1962, Ruiz and two cousins ventured in an "unreliable convertible" from Miami to New York. With $200 between the three of them, they arrived in New York with less than $20. "I worked as a bus boy at a cafeteria and then as a taxi driver for eight years," he said. Despite these obstacles, Ruiz finished his dissertation in the Graduate School of the University in 1974. Watching Ruiz interact with his students, it is easy to see why they are drawn to him. "I am amazed by the possibilities you all have. There is something so wonderful about the sense you can scale the world," he said.

Ruiz, a visiting professor at the University, will be teaching medieval history at UCLA next year. He expressed deep regret about leaving Princeton. "I am amazed at the great commitment of the faculty to teaching," Ruiz said. "I love this place," he said. "I'm going to miss it terribly . . . the town, the beauty."

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