This entry is part 13 of 29 in the series Fall - 2016



by Anne Manning

Kept in captivity, far 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.

Following the initial shock of Sutherland’s disappearance in Beirut in 1985, 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.

One of those close friends was Frank Vattano, now professor emeritus of psychology. He and Sutherland first bonded when Vattano mentioned car trouble. Sutherland said, “Why don’t you bring it over to my garage?”

“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. “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.


Vattano and Bill West, a local businessman, organized the Friends of Tom Sutherland Committee. Friends of Tom Sutherland held many vigils, marking 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.”

Sutherland’s Dec. 1, 1991, homecoming, following his Nov. 18 release, was among the University’s 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.

Barb Musslewhite, longtime director of the Center for Advising and Student Achievement, was one of those who knew exactly who he was and what he had suffered, thanks to his supporters. “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,” she said.

“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.”


by  William Griswold

WHEN CSU PROFESSOR Tom Sutherland accepted the job of dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut in 1983, he knew he was stepping into a cauldron of anti-American feeling. To Tom, the opportunity to serve in Lebanon was a challenge. He had no particular political prejudices but assumed all people valued science and peace.

What he did not understand was the extraordinary hatred and suspicion most Arabs had of Western governments. Why would an American scholar-educator want to help the very people whom his Western forces were undermining and controlling?

Tom ignored the hatred and the dangers that might face him. He carefully considered the options and then, with his wife, Jean, decided to accept.

He read deeply into the events and politics of the region, how the Israelis had invaded southern Lebanon in 1982, provoking the normally quiescent Shi’a majority to a unified anger. These Shi’ites hated Israel, hated the Christian Lebanese leadership, hated the rich Sunni Muslims of Beirut, and felt totally isolated. Out of this anger formed the Islamic Jihad.

Yet, a peace had been brokered by the U.S. and the United Nations. Late in the year, Israeli forces had returned home. By 1983, a certain stability existed and could continue if good people tried. Beirut could flourish. Tom decided it was worth a try to work for education not war. What could be more useful in the movement toward a peaceful reconstruction of Lebanon?

After the Iranians deposed their shah in 1979, the U.S. imposed sanctions against the new Islamic Republic of Iran, sanctions that included freezing billions of dollars’ worth of assets in American banks.

In the early 1980s, the Islamic Jihad sought help from their co-religionists now in power in Iran. They could take on a specific mission: Eliminate Western power in Lebanon and its support of Israel. They could easily take prominent Westerners hostage to increase their notoriety; the ransoms paid would increase their funds.

Thus, the challenges that Tom had worked so hard to overcome became overwhelming in 1985. Returning to AUB from a trip to New York, Tom himself was taken prisoner. For all his desire to serve, to accept the challenge, the many local and international forces of hatred denied Tom the freedom to teach. He spent six years imprisoned, bound and blindfolded by Hezbollah, backed by the Iranian government.

In the end, the Iranians determined that keeping the Americans incarcerated was more trouble than it was worth. Apparently, the chief of the Iranian Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini himself, gave the permission to release the American prisoners in 1991.

William Griswold is professor emeritus of history at Colorado State University. He was Tom Sutherland’s friend since 1965.