Tom Sutherland: Patron of the arts

Tom and Jean Sutherland stand in front of the transport/delivery vehicle they have donated to the College of Liberal Arts. June 10, 2010

In 1988, three years after Thomas Sutherland was abducted by Iran-supported Hezbollah gunmen in Beirut, Lebanon, the Larimer Chorale scheduled a concert of Scottish-themed music to honor the esteemed professor of animal sciences at CSU.

“We wanted to support Tom and his family, and let them know that he was not forgotten,” said Paddy Shannon, a founding member of the Larimer Chorale and longtime friend of the Sutherlands. “We sang a lot of Scottish songs, and especially Robert Burns poems that had been set to music.”

Word of the concert somehow reached Sutherland, who, little did anyone know at the time, was barely halfway through his agonizing 2,353 days in captivity.

“He told me later how much it meant to him when he heard about our concert,” Shannon said, noting that the Chorale did an encore performance after Sutherland’s release – during which he read poems by his beloved Bobby Burns.

When his family was awarded a $35 million judgment against the frozen assets of the Iranian government in 2001, the Scottish-born Sutherland wasted no time in sharing his newfound wealth with his adopted home in Fort Collins – and the arts community, in particular. The Sutherland Family Foundation supported the Fort Collins Symphony, Opera Fort Collins, OpenStage Theatre, KUNC, the Chorale, Bas Bleu Theater Company and many other organizations.

“They not only gave their incredibly generous financial support, they attended the events,” said Wendy Ishii, the founding artistic director for Bas Bleu. “Tom and Jean were great patrons of the arts, and I’m so grateful to have gotten to know the whole Sutherland clan. The depth of Tom’s friendship was profound – he was such a humanitarian, and he had such respect for humanity.”

Love of the arts

Ishii helped found Bas Bleu in 1991, around the time of Sutherland’s release from captivity. They became friends after that, and he told Ishii how his love for the arts was one of the factors that kept him going during his six-plus years of captivity.

“He said he got to listen to Edward Elgar’s cello concerto, and it shed light on the darkness in his life,” Ishii said. “At that same time we started rehearsing for our first performance at Bas Bleu, a play about Jacqueline du Pré, who was famous for playing Elgar’s cello concerto. While I was listening to it to prepare for this role, Tom was listening to it to hold onto life.

“That was very powerful for me.”

Earlie Thomas, Tom Sutherland and Wendy Ishii in "A Lesson From Aloes" at Bas Bleu Theatre.
Earlie Thomas, Tom Sutherland and Wendy Ishii in “A Lesson From Aloes” at Bas Bleu Theatre.

Ten years later, when Ishii was contemplating staging “A Lesson From Aloes,” Athol Fugard’s 1979 play about personal relationships wrought by apartheid in South Africa, she was convinced that the 70-year-old Sutherland, who had never performed, would be perfect for the role.

Ishii, Sutherland and Earlie Thomas, who taught at CSU, spent a year rehearsing for the play.

“I would go to Tom and Jean’s house, and Tom and I would learn lines and work on his South African accent,” she recalled. “It was one of the most magical, wonderful, fulfilling years of my life, getting to spend time with Tom and Jean. After rehearsal we would launch into history and art and Renaissance conversations. It was one of the most joyous years of my life.”

When Bas Bleu decided to change locations and move to the historic Giddings Building, the switch required $1.5 million. The Sutherlands pledged $500,000 to the project, encouraging others to invest. The theater — and the stage named for its greatest benefactor — has thrived ever since.

“Having his support and belief in this crazy little theater was tremendously important to our success,” Ishii said.

Shannon said the Sutherlands could always be counted on for generous donations that helped the Larimer Chorale survive and thrive. The group is celebrating its 40th season in 2016-17 – and support from the Sutherlands has been tremendously important.

“We had a campaign a few years ago to raise money for risers for the Chorale, and we were about $4,000 short,” said Shannon, who often chatted with the Sutherlands while sipping scotch – although Tom preferred an old fashioned. “Tom asked me how the campaign was going and I told him we were short. He wrote me a check for $5,000 on the spot.”