This entry is part 17 of 29 in the series Fall - 2016


by Tony Phifer

The last time I saw Tom Sutherland, the twinkle was still there.

It was early December 2015, and he and his family were making their annual appearance at the Dickens Dinners – a festive event that features all things old-fashioned English Christmas, including carols, wassail, and even figgy pudding. Despite not feeling particularly good, Tom sang along with every carol and enjoyed the warmth of the evening. And that wonderful twinkle was still in his eye.

The first time I saw Tom was in 1991. He had recently been released after being kidnapped and held by Islamic extremists in Beirut for more than six years, and Fort Collins and CSU were throwing him a welcome-home celebration. Our hero had returned.

I’ll always remember the yellow ribbons that were tied ’round every tree in the Oval – our city’s way of keeping hope of his safe return alive. That day – Dec. 1, 1991 – we threw a party for the ages, and Tom seemed to love every last minute of it. I’ll never forget the pure joy radiating from his face as he rode through campus, where hundreds of well-wishers came to welcome him.

That’s when I noticed the twinkle; hardly what I expected from a man who had every reason on earth to be bitter and withdrawn. That ever-present twinkle – visible from a considerable distance – seemed to be telling everyone, “I’m going to be just fine.”

And he was. In fact, he was better than fine – he was downright amazing.

Always a delightful man committed to education and the arts, he threw himself into post-hostage life with remarkable zest, seeming to treat every day as a celebration of freedom. He was the toast of the town, but as much as we loved him, he seemed to love us even more.

When he won his $35 million settlement in 2001 from a lawsuit against the government of Iran, he set up the Sutherland Family Foundation and almost immediately began sharing the fruits of what he jokingly described as his “extended vacation paid for by the Shah of Iran.”

Remember that catchy little song from a few years back, “If I Had a Million Dollars”? It asks the question many of us have pondered: What would I do if I had a million dollars? Well, Tom Sutherland had $35 million – and here’s what he did:

He breathed life into local theater, helping Bas Bleu buy the building that would help transform the company. He shared his love of his Scottish hero, Robert Burns, by hosting events to celebrate his magnificent poetry. He used his money to support the Larimer Chorale, the Fort Collins Symphony, and many other arts groups. He bolstered CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, where he taught for many years before going to Beirut, and its students with his many donations.

He and his beloved wife, Jean, loved to sing, and their duets were the stuff of legend. Heck, he even took up acting – in his 70s! – and brought down the house with his performance at Bas Bleu. Not surprisingly, the stage there is named for him.

He lived like he owed the world a favor when, in truth, the world owed him. He taught us all how to live, how to share, and, in the end, how to die – peacefully, surrounded by family.

What an incredible life he led.

In 2001, he shared his thoughts with the Fort Collins Coloradoan on how he would like people to remember him:

“I would like them to remember that I was the recipient of an awful lot of kindness and good will, and would like, if possible, to repay that. And, that they could say when I die: ‘Here’s a guy who did do something for other people.’”

Tony Phifer is a Fort Collins native who was a reporter for the Coloradoan during Tom Sutherland’s captivity. He now works for CSU’s Division of External Relations.