It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes several thousand staff and faculty members to educate and care for Princeton undergraduate students once they begin their University careers.
Howard “Earl” Vernon Sutphin is one such employee. Sutphin has been recognized for his impact on the lives of Princetonians many times in student personal projects and assignments and even on national news. Sutphin is retiring at the end of this academic year, after 27 years of cooking and caring for Princeton students.
The conversation below was edited for length and clarity.
Howard Sutphin: Before we get started, lemme show you something. Have you ever seen this picture [see mural by Mario Moore below]? I got on the news because of that picture. They were supposed to just interview the artist, but then they said, “No we wanna talk to the people behind the picture.” So the artist said “I’ve got just the guy you wanna talk to.”
Daily Princetonian: What do you prefer people call you?
HS: Everyone knows me. Howard. My full name is Howard Vernon Sutphin. But people sometimes call me Earl, like Earl the Pearl [Earl Monroe], a basketball player. My uncle was a conductor at Penn Central Train Station, and he said “You wanna be good at basketball? You gotta play.” He would give me passes to Philadelphia. For four years I would play over there in Summer League, in the city. And they said my game was like Earl, so ever since I was playing basketball, they’ve been calling me that.
DP: When did you first come to the Princeton area?
HS: I live in Trenton, but I’ve been working in Princeton since 1992. For four years I worked two jobs, one out by Mercer Airport and one at PJ’s Pancake House. I made craters. I made pancakes, all of that. Let me tell you a story about that. A couple of kids came over to PJ’s, and I asked them where they were from. They said Princeton University. I told them that I wanted them to bring me back an application for where they go to eat. So they talked to the manager at the school, and the manager got my application. He hired me on the spot. I gave both of my jobs two weeks’ notice and then started here in 1996.
DP: What is one of your favorite parts about working in RoMa?
HS: The people. I love the people. It’s beautiful. I thank God everyday for this, because I meet people from all over the world. Because I can’t go all over the world, but they come in to me.
DP: What made you want to cook at Princeton?
HS: When I went to college, these two ladies used to feed me and come to my games. I told them “If I get the chance to feed kids like you guys do, I’m gonna do my best” And that’s all I’m doing.
DP: Will you talk a bit about your childhood and your family?
HS: My father was a construction worker. But a lot of his friends that he worked with, Black and white, they would go fishing and take him with. He told them that we didn’t have any food, so everybody gave fish to him. So we ate fish. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had fish and grits, fish and french fries, fish and fish. So I told my mother when I get out of her house, I’m gonna eat no more fish. And I haven’t made fish since then. I make good fish, and I cook it here. But I don’t eat fish.
I’m now a grandfather of eight. My brother has seven girls, and he’s got 37 grandkids. I lost my brother about two years ago, and I got a headstone for him. Everyone came out to see the stone unveiled. And that was wonderful. That made me happy. I was the baby of the family growing up. Now I’m like the leader. They treat me good.
DP: What are your favorite things to make?
HS: I brought in cakes here and the kids went crazy, but that’s stopped because of the pandemic. But everyone loves my cakes. Even the undertaker [at the cemetery], he likes my carrot raisin cake with walnuts. It’s so moist. I learned from my mama. I’m a mama’s boy. I just stayed under her leg and I’d take the bowl when she was teaching me to cook. I was waiting on one of my nieces to learn from me. And finally my great-niece did it. She made a cake just like mine.
DP: What is one of your favorite memories at Princeton?
HS: Oh, I got so many. I was in TapCats. The tap dancing group here. I love to tap.
And I like to go to sports. I go out to all the sports games. That’s how I got this hat (holds up a Princeton Cross Country hat). I got this from a girl named Fiona [Fiona Max ’24]. She ran a race last year, and she won. And she came to me and said “I got something for you.” She ran across the field, after having just run this big race. I told her “Go take your break.” But she wanted to give me this.
Another moment was with the basketball team. Now there’s a picture of me with LeBron James in the men’s locker room here, which I love. But there was another time when I went to a game with a white t-shirt and some magic markers, and the coach called a timeout so all the players could come sign it.
There’s another girl Ashleigh [Ashleigh Johnson ’17] who went to the Olympics and won a gold medal. She came back with a picture of her medal for me and signed it “to my number one fan.”
DP: Do you have any advice for Princeton students?
HS: I’ve got this jacket. Even when I’m having a bad day or a crazy day, in the morning I hang my jacket up, then I come on in with a smile. Then, when I gotta face life again, I go and pick my jacket back up. That’s what you gotta do, take stuff one day at a time. If you can’t do it today, you do it tomorrow.
The ‘Prince’ also spoke with students about their experiences with Sutphin.
DP: Will you talk a little bit about Howard from Rockefeller-Mathey Dining Hall, or RoMa?
Dani Samake ’24: Howard is such a warm, welcoming presence at RoMa. A fond memory I have is getting to know him more at the Mathey FLI[first generation, low income] dinner.
Kateri Espinosa ’24: When Princeton gets really tough, I know I can always count on Howard. He always smiles and asks you how you’re doing and really makes your day a little less stressful and more bright.
Minna Abdella ’26: Howard is the best person to see every morning! [He is] always welcoming and brightens my day by just asking how I’m doing. When I wasn’t feeling great, he told me to get RoMa’s tea and have his pancakes and I’d feel better. It put a good start to my day.
Pia Dicenzo ’24: He once sat down and showed me pictures and videos of his dogs while I was eating lunch. It made my day and I had so much fun.
Brian Li ’24: He is an egg artist, a wonderfully kind man, and a source of constancy in my life.
Caitlin Limestahl ’23: Howard’s cheeriness always makes me feel recognized and appreciated; this meant a lot as a first-year and it still does today as a senior. He makes Rocky truly feel like my home away from home.
Limestahl is a managing editor at the ‘Prince.’
Caroline Kirby ’23: Howard is the spirit of Princeton.
Sydney Eck is a Head Features Editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.