Kept from loved ones, friends and colleagues for more than six years, Tom Sutherland often wondered whether he’d been forgotten.
Far from it. All that time, Sutherland’s home community of Fort Collins kept faithful vigil, refusing to let his capture lapse from the collective consciousness.
The Colorado State University emeritus professor of animal sciences, held hostage in Lebanon from June 9, 1985-Nov. 18, 1991, died July 22, leaving a legacy of bravery, kindness, intelligence and buoyancy of spirit. He was 85 years old.
Following the initial shock of Sutherland’s disappearance in 1985, while he was on leave from CSU to serve as dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, Fort Collins rallied together. Those closest to Sutherland, as well as complete strangers, worked to keep the urgency of his kidnapping publicly visible, and to affirm family members suffering the pain of his absence – even as the months passed, then years.
A 40-year friendship
Long before Sutherland underwent the horror of kidnapping, he began a 40-year friendship with Frank Vattano, now an emeritus professor of psychology. He and Vattano first bonded when, during a faculty committee meeting, Vattano mentioned car trouble. Sutherland said, “Why don’t you bring it over to my garage?” A friendship punctuated by a mutual love of working on cars was born. (Sutherland, Vattano admits, did the majority of the work, while Vattano mostly held the flashlight).
“Tom was one of the most incredible guys I’d ever met,” Vattano said. “He was a very talented guy, he could fix anything, make anything, he had a great sense of humor, he was very honest, and he had integrity. He was always willing to help somebody when something needed to be done.”
Vattano remembers the day Sutherland got the long-distance call from the New York office of the American University of Beirut, offering him the deanship. They were – surprise – working on a car in Sutherland’s garage. “Beirut – are you crazy?” Vattano said to his friend. It was a place “full of violence” at the time.
But off Sutherland went, along with his wife, Jean, who taught English at the American University.
During the years Sutherland remained in captivity, no one saw or communicated with him directly, Vattano said. Jean would return to Fort Collins occasionally with word-of-mouth updates that Sutherland was alive.
Friends of Tom Sutherland
Vattano and Bill West, a local businessman, organized the Friends of Tom Sutherland Committee. Their efforts are briefly chronicled in Democracy’s University: A History of Colorado State University, by CSU Emeritus Professor of History James Hansen.
Gov. Richard Lamm proclaimed Tom Sutherland Day on June 9, 1986, a year after Sutherland was taken by members of Hezbollah. Hansen described the gathering on campus:
“…and a large crowd had gathered on the Oval, which had been festooned with yellow ribbons tied to elm trees and columns of the Administration Building. President Philip Austin and his executive assistant, Myra Powers, supported this highly successful event, but few could have foreseen that it would become an annual vigil that lasted another five years.”
Friends of Tom Sutherland held many vigils, including at 100 days, the first year, the first 1,000 days and the first 2,000 days of Sutherland’s captivity. They held bike races and ceremonies, and asked people to pray in their respective churches. Faculty members wore yellow ribbons at commencements.
“I knew that if anybody could survive, it would be Tom,” Vattano said. “He was tenacious and strong-willed.”
West also remembers those days with clarity.
“It was so important to keep freedom in the forefront of our mind, [and] how he was robbed of that freedom,” said West, who had never met Sutherland at the time. “Other people that didn’t know Tom were certainly caught up in the notion that this man’s freedom was stripped. We [needed] to keep that plight alive.”
A joyful homecoming
West remembers with joy the first time he met Sutherland “in the flesh” – the day Sutherland stepped off a plane at the Fort Collins-Loveland airport, to a swell of cheers from the waiting crowd.
Sutherland’s Dec. 1, 1991, homecoming, following his Nov. 18 release, was among CSU and Fort Collins’ largest-ever celebratory gatherings. Crowds lined I-25 from Loveland to Fort Collins. A rally took place on the Oval upon news of his release in November, and 10,000 well-wishers packed Moby Arena the day he arrived, with hundreds more unable to get in.
Tom and Jean Sutherland stood and waved through the moon roof as they were driven from the airport to campus that cold December day, Vattano recalled. Vattano was sitting in the back seat. Tom would occasionally reach back into the car, and Vattano held his friend’s hand to warm it.
Barb Musselwhite, longtime director of the Center for Advising and Student Achievement, was one of those who’d never met Sutherland but knew exactly who he was and what he had suffered, thanks to his supporters.
“One my greatest memories during my time at the university was Tom Sutherland being released and the sense of joy on the Oval during the celebratory event to welcome him back,” Musselwhite recalled before she retired in July. “Before his release, I remember walking by the Math building and every day, his friends would update the number of days he’d been held. So even though I had never met him, I knew who he was and where he was. And every day his friends honored him. I just remember the tremendous joy and sense of freedom for him that day.”
For West, “it was the spirit [Sutherland] maintained that was one of the biggest lessons I learned. He was just a walking symbol of what the human spirit is all about.”