The Sutherland family legacy lives on at the CSU Libraries
story by Corinne Neustadter
published June 24, 2021
In June 1985, Colorado State University professor Thomas Sutherland was working at the American University of Beirut. In 1991, he finally returned home to Fort Collins to a hero’s welcome after spending six years as a hostage of Islamic jihadists. His determination and courage during his captivity was recognized and celebrated the world over.
Sutherland and his family – his wife, Jean, and his daughters Ann, Kit and Joan – spent the years following his return (as well as a substantial portion of the multimillion-dollar settlement he received from the frozen assets of the Iranian government) building a legacy of advocacy and philanthropy locally and around the world. Tom and Jean’s careers and community involvement made them beacons of joy and positivity throughout Northern Colorado.
Thanks to the work of archivists and librarians at CSU Libraries, the Sutherland family’s legacy – an example of how resiliency and positivity can emerge from adversity and transform lives – will be preserved and accessible to researchers, providing more insight into their wide-ranging impacts within local and international communities.
Documenting and preserving a family’s legacy
The Papers of Thomas M. Sutherland collection comprises a myriad of documents and video footage, shedding light on Sutherland’s agricultural research, family trips and memories, and the outpouring of community support during his captivity.
The collection was donated by Jean Sutherland in 2018, two years after Tom’s death at age 85, along with a $50,000 endowment to fund the processing and long-term preservation of the materials. In 2021, Sutherland donated an additional $75,000 to further support the specialized care of the materials and other work in the Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections.
“I was thrilled CSU was interested in our materials, frankly,” said Sutherland. “They’ve been terribly good to us. Our whole life has been here, and we just felt the right place for them was at the library – it was a given to (donate) them.”
Entrusted with the family’s legacy, library staff carefully inventoried films and audio reels and coordinated the digitization of family videos. A portion of the collection is now available for the public to download via the CSU Libraries’ digital repository, Mountain Scholar, which also includes Tom’s scholarly publications.
“These materials present a wonderful capsule in time,” said Clarissa Trapp, digital and archives specialist and project lead, who developed a deep appreciation for the Sutherlands as she processed the family’s videos.
“These materials present a wonderful capsule in time.”
— Clarissa Trapp, digital and archives specialist and project lead, CSU Libraries
“(The Sutherlands) turned a situation that was really terrible into something they used to address problems they saw around them, and had a wonderful impact,” she added.
From Scotland to Iowa to Colorado to Lebanon and back again
Jean and Tom Sutherland settled in Northern Colorado in 1956, moving from Ames, Iowa, where they met as students at Iowa State University.
“Tom [originally from Scotland] happened to be the president of the international students’ association, and we were both at the same event at the Young Women’s Christian Association,” she said. “We started talking when he helped me wash dishes afterwards.”
The couple married and moved to Colorado after Tom found a position on the faculty of the animal sciences department at CSU. They set down roots in Fort Collins and raised three daughters.
Education has been at the heart of the Sutherlands’ lives. Jean worked as an English teacher in the Poudre School District’s vocational education program and earned her master’s degree in English literature from CSU in 1973.
Tom taught in the animal sciences department for over 25 years before working abroad in Ethiopia and Lebanon. The Sutherland family temporarily moved to Ethiopia in 1976, where Tom helped develop an international livestock program and Jean worked as a counselor for an American high school in Addis Ababa.
“There was just so much learning we had to do about the culture,” Jean said. “We had to get used to it, and after you get used to it, we loved it. We loved the people.”
Tom and Jean’s daughters enjoyed their experiences in Ethiopia and Greece, revealed in the newly digitized footage.
In one video of the family’s travels in Ethiopia, the girls beam with delight as they hand-feed local wildlife, coming face-to-face with monkeys and lemurs. Having a personal encounter with these animals proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the family.
“They never regretted, nor did they ever forget those experiences – and they wouldn’t give them up for anything,” Jean said.
After earning her doctorate in English from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1985, Jean taught with the American University of Beirut’s Hariri English learning program to positively affect the city’s students and help facilitate Tom’s release.
“I was there to share with Tom in carrying on the work of education that we’d gone there to do, to teach young people, to give them a chance at a life, and to make positive impact into a very negative environment so that conflict could be resolved, and captives released with no more being abducted,” she wrote in the Sutherlands’ book, At Your Own Risk.
The family supported deep connections with Fort Collins throughout his captivity, and community members never forgot the Sutherland family, supporting Jean, Ann, Kit and Joan through both tumultuous and tremendous times. CSU students sent letters and Valentine’s Day cards to the Sutherland family in Beirut while Tom was held hostage, which is still one of Jean’s favorite CSU-related memories.
“Having the Valentines come to us in Beirut from all of the students at CSU was absolutely wonderful,” she said.
CSU faculty helped advocate on Tom’s behalf, proving to be a beacon of hope – and home – for the Sutherland family as they navigated an intense geopolitical situation.
When Tom returned to Fort Collins, the community turned out in full force to celebrate his release, with thousands at his homecoming parade.
Giving back to the Fort Collins community
In 2001, Tom received a $36.5 million settlement from a lawsuit against the Iranian government, much of which has been invested into the Northern Colorado region through the Sutherland Family Foundation.
“He felt very strongly about his joy at coming back to Fort Collins, and he was one of the few hostages to have a hometown to come back to,” Jean said.
“He felt very strongly about his joy at coming back to Fort Collins, and he was one of the few hostages to have a hometown to come back to.”
— Jean Sutherland
The Sutherlands’ spirit of giving and love of their hometown have led them to support a breadth of community organizations, including KUNC Community Radio, Bas Bleu Theatre Company and CSU itself.
Tom was inducted into the Colorado Agriculture Hall of Fame in CSU’s CoBank Center for Agricultural Education for his contributions to animal science and dedication to educating people of all ages about sustainable agriculture; both Jean and Tom have been instrumental in supporting CSU’s performing arts programs.
For her dedication to serving students throughout her career, Jean was awarded the College of Liberal Arts’ Charles A. Lory Service Award in 2014. Both Tom and Jean received the CSU Founder’s Day Medal in 2014.
The establishment of the Sutherland Collection at CSU will prove to have far-reaching impacts into the future, immortalizing how the Sutherlands continue to benefit Colorado.
“I hope there’s something in (the collection) that people would like to see,” Jean said. “Friends and family will be able to look at it and know Tom and our family.”
The Sutherland Papers truly present a cohesive portrait of an iconic Fort Collins family, giving insight into their intergenerational community legacy.