Former hostage Thomas Sutherland is freed a second time

a-tom-sutherland-1 Jean and Tom Sutherland at the Bas Bleu Theatre’s ‘Burn the Mortgage’ party. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Former Colorado State University professor, arts benefactor and occasional actor Thomas Sutherland was held hostage in Beirut for more than six years – or 2,353 agonizing days. The genial Scotsman said he contemplated suicide several times during his ordeal, but he was repeatedly brought back from the edge of despair by the lyrical poetry of Scotsman Robert Burns.

If there is another world, he lives in bliss.
If there is none, he made the best of this.

In 2003, at the age of 72, the indefatigable Sutherland made his first foray into acting, starring in in Athol Fugard’s play A Lesson From Aloes at the Bas Bleu Theatre in his adopted home of Fort Collins. The apartheid play explores how the relationships between an elderly white couple and their black friend are strained by South African repression. Sutherland said performing in the play was a way to repay Burns and other artists whose work helped him through the ordeal.

Sutherland died Friday (July 22), in Fort Collins. He was 85.

Seeing Sutherland in his final days, friend Wendy Ishii was reminded of Sutherland’s time as a hostage, wanting nothing more than freedom.

“He asked to have the window open and I thought, ‘He just wants to fly out of here,'” said Ishii, co-founder of the Bas Bleu Theatre. “Now he has.”

Sutherland was Dean of Agriculture at the American University in Beirut when he was kidnapped near his home on June 9, 1985, by Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah terrorists wanting U.S. military forces out of the bloody Lebanese civil war. He was released on Nov. 18, 1991.

In the introduction to the book At Your Own Risk, President George Bush said of Sutherland, “Tom is a true American hero. He was a hostage, yes, but he never felt sorry for himself, nor did he complain of his situation. He inspired us all with his grit and his unfailing faith in God and his country.”

a-tom-sutherland-400Thomas Sutherland was born May 3, 1931, in Falkirk, Scotland. He earned degree in Agriculture from Glasgow University, and a master’s degree and PhD in animal breeding from Iowa State University. He then taught animal science at Colorado State University for 26 years.

He moved to Beirut in 1983 for a three-year term at the American University in Beirut. He stayed despite the assassination of University President Malcolm H. Kerr and the kidnapping of Professor Frank Reiger in 1984. Sutherland later said his kidnappers mistook him for University President Calvin Plimpton.

(Pictured above right: Former Denver Broncos player Earlie Thomas, Thomas Sutherland and Wendi Ishii in Bas Bleu Theatre’s ‘A Lesson from Aloes.’)

In June 2001, the Sutherland family won a $323 million verdict in a lawsuit against the frozen assets of the government of Iran, because of evidence that Iran had directed terrorists to kidnap Americans in Lebanon. Sutherland and his family received $35 million from frozen Iranian assets. Sutherland liked to joke that he was on “an extended vacation paid for by the Shah of Iran.”

Sutherland used his settlement for a variety of public uses. He underwrote the initial $1.1 million purchase of the historic Giddings Building in Fort Collins, which provided a new home for the Bas Bleu Theatre Company. Sutherland pledged $500,000 of that himself.

On Nov. 19, 2011, the Bas Bleu Theatre christened its playing space as the Tom Sutherland Stage. Ishii said the Sutherland name will be used “to help carry forward his legacy of love and fostering of this energetic and optimistic place, Fort Collins, with Tom’s name gracing our voices.”

Bas Bleu board member Peter Springberg once asked Sutherland how his life had changed since his release from captivity, and the subsequent award of so much cash.

“He thought a moment, then said, ‘We still live in the same house. Once in a while I buy a better bottle of bourbon. But mostly, I get to give away more money to deserving nonprofits.” 

Sutherland is survived by his wife, Jean; with whom he co-authored memories of his hostage experience in the book At Your Own Risk. The book tells each of their stories in alternating chapters. Jean Sutherland,  who taught English at the American University while her husband was held captive, said their goal in writing in writing the book was to show that “the situation was an enormity between hostages, hostage-takers, governments and families of hostages.”

There were times during his captivity when Sutherland thought of Jean and said, “Am I really married to that woman? God, how could I have been so lucky? It took me a long time to convince myself that I really was married to Jean.”

They have three daughters Kit (Scott Kintz); Joan Sutherland Sears (Mike Sears); Ann Sutherland (Ray Keller). On Valentine’s Day, 1988, as he lay shackled to a wall in a windowless cell, Sutherland read in a Beirut newspaper that grandchild had been born to his daughter, Ann. After his release, he met his son-in-law, Keller, for the first time. His first meal as a free man was mince and patties, a Scottish specialty of ground beef over mashed potatoes.

Sutherland told the New York Times that fellow hostage Terry Waite was “a great, great guy – even though his snoring was unbearable.” And he said Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press at the time of his capture, taught him how to play bridge and chess. In return, Sutherland taught Anderson how to speak French, and a bit about agriculture.

“I spent six years out of the seven years I was in captivity with Tommy,” Anderson told The Associated Press on Saturday. “We were kept in the same cells and sometimes on the same chain. Whenever they moved us, generally Tommy would show up with me. He was a kind and gentle man.” 

Anderson said Sutherland “was a guy who remembered everyone he ever met. He never forgot anyone. I don’t know how he did it. He was such a people person that he remembered everybody. When we were in prison, we would sit and talk about things we had done and places he had gone. He always talked about the people he met there, and he remembered them. He was a very, very good man.”

Colorado State University President Tony Frank, called Sutherand’s homecoming in 1991 “One of the greatest moments in the history of Colorado State University. His spirit and optimism inspired the world, and the deep devotion of his family during the bleak years he was a hostage taught us a profound lesson of courage, faith, and hope.”

Jacques Rieux of Fort Collins, who edited At Your Own Risk, said Sutherland was not just another hostage. “He was one of us,” Rieux said. “He suffered horribly as a hostage, but he had few choices to make during his ordeal. Jean was the one who had choices to make. The public image she presented showed dignity and courage. She refused to play the victim card. She showed no self-pity and expressed no bitterness. I was amazed at how she could maintain such composure. Ultimately, they won because they did not let the events in Beirut warp them. That would have been an irreparable loss.

“Tom and Jean are wonderful people who appreciate the simple things in life: A beautiful sunset, a glass of wine, time with friends. They are a blessing to the town.”

A public celebration of Sutherland’s life will be held in mid-August.

The following is an interview with Thomas Sutherland and Terry Anderson by Theatre Critic John Moore originally published in The Denver Post in 2008:

Tom Sutherland: Humanity held hostage
By John Moore

As fellow Beirut hostages Tom Sutherland and Terry Anderson sat bound to a wall in near- total darkness year after endless year, they told stories to keep each other alive. Their captors could chain their bodies, but they could not chain their minds.

Anderson, the Associated Press war correspondent, helped Sutherland picture how a differential transmission worked, without benefit of pencil or paper. Sutherland, the Colorado State University prof, in turn taught Anderson agricultural science and French.

“We spent hours practicing irregular verbs — to the utter dismay and horror of those we were pent up with,” Anderson says with a grim laugh.

For six years. A combined 4,808 days.

“If it hadn’t been for Terry, I probably would have committed suicide,” said Sutherland, who was a dean at the American University in Beirut when he was kidnapped by Iranian- backed Shiite Hezbollah terrorists wanting U.S. military forces out of the bloody Lebanese civil war.

“Every time I got discouraged and put my head down on the pillow and said, ‘I’m done with all this,’ Terry encouraged me, and that’s the reason I am alive today.”

They read “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” and “Darkness at Midnight.”

“Can you imagine reading a book about a man stuck in a basement prison in Siberia, while you are sitting in a basement prison in the Bekaa Valley?” Anderson said.

But of all the lifesaving literature these bound brothers scavenged like bread, one line echoes most resoundingly in Anderson’s mind, 17 years after their 1991 release. And it’s a line Vietnam-era “Pogo” cartoonist Walt Kelly put into the mouth of a possum:

“We have met the enemy — and he is us.”

Anderson, the longest-held of 54 civilian Beirut captives from 12 nations, is angered and bewildered that it’s now the United States that’s detaining and, he says, torturing suspects as a matter of approved policy.

“It is wrong. It is evil, there is no question about it,” Anderson said. “To have a government that not only condones (torture), but excuses it and practices it, is shameful. I am very proud of my country, but I am ashamed of this government. We are not supposed to be the ones who are doing this sort of crap.”

Anderson, speaking from his home in Ohio, joined Sutherland on a conference call to talk about their captivity, the bond that still tethers them in ways far mightier than any chain, and their common disgust with the Iraq war.

They also talked about fellow hostage Brian Keenan, whose story was turned into the drama “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” opening Saturday at Bas Bleu Theatre in Sutherland’s hometown of Fort Collins. It’s about the friendship that Keenan, an Irishman, developed with Englishman John McCarthy while in captivity. An American character is said to be somewhat based on Anderson.

Anderson, a theater major at NYU and a Marine in Vietnam, first saw the play in New York in 1992. Last summer he watched the film adaptation, “Blind Flight,” at Keenan’s home in Ireland. Sutherland served as consultant on productions of the play by the Denver Center Theatre Company and University of Northern Colorado.

The message of the play is now the mantra of these men: When one man unjustly imprisons any other, he holds not only the human hostage, but humanity itself.

“It’s about what a trauma it is to be kidnapped, but how it’s possible to survive with humor and argumentation and by supporting each other,” Sutherland said.

In the play, Keenan has an epiphany of understanding when his character says, “Just as I was chained in darkness for almost five years, my captors were chained to their guns in a profound darkness I could see into. Tell me now — who is the prisoner here?”

Anderson, now 60, and Sutherland, 76, have a much less sympathetic opinion of their captors. Sutherland believes they were cowards, and that if not for the guns, “every last one of them would have skedaddled out of there.”

Anderson remembers when one of his captors once said to him, “We’re prisoners, too.”

“And I said, ‘Well, that’s just fine. Give me the gun, and you take the chain,’ ” he said. “Of course, they are prisoners of their violence and their own mental blindness. But the guy with the chains and the blindfold? He’s the prisoner. The guy with the gun? He’s not.”

After his release, Sutherland returned to Fort Collins and served as professor emeritus at CSU for a period of life the genial Scotsman jovially refers to as his “extended vacation paid for by the Shah of Iran” — after being awarded $35 million in frozen Iranian assets. Anderson also won a multimillion-dollar judgment, which he used in part to build schools in Vietnam.

He’s also co-chair, along with former CBS-TV news anchor Walter Cronkite, of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since March 2003, 125 journalists and 49 media workers have been killed in Iraq — most of them Arabs, Iraqis and Syrians working for Western news agencies.

“This is the most dangerous war that journalists have ever covered, by far,” Anderson said. “Eighty percent of the murders of journalists around the world are never investigated. No one is ever arrested. No one is ever convicted. Journalists are fair game in many places around the world, because … dictators and oppressors always go for the press first. Always.”

Civilians are still being kidnapped, tortured and killed. Anderson and Sutherland empathize with anyone of any nationality thrust into the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in an inhumane situation.

“You do it through force of will,” Anderson said. “You use everything you have ever learned and truly believe in — and you refuse to budge from that. As we used to say, ‘They cannot take your dignity, no matter what they do. You can only give it to them.’ ”

But the U.S. now finds itself in a confusing imbroglio that looks far too much to Anderson like 1985 Lebanon.

“We are involved in what is essentially a civil war in Iraq,” he said. “We don’t have any idea who our friends or who our enemies are. Does this sound familiar to anyone? We don’t apparently learn our lessons very well in American foreign policy.”

He’s referring to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ refusal to rule out waterboarding and other techniques deemed torture by the Geneva Convention.

“Not only is it morally insupportable and inexcusable — it doesn’t work,” he said. “Where we got into this evil charade, I don’t know, but we are now a country that as a matter of policy not only tortures its prisoners, but we conspire to ship them out of any jurisdiction where the law might interfere.”

Why the citizenry does not stand up against such practices may be tied to the fact that primetime TV shows like “24” offer increasingly absurd examples of prisoner torture for our amusement.

“When torture becomes entertainment, we’re sick,” said Anderson.

“I think the U.S. has become less than it was in many ways, and that’s a shame.”