The phone call came early that Monday morning – Nov. 18, 1991. Even as I was coming awake and reaching for the receiver I knew something newsworthy was happening, maybe something bad.
The caller was Chris Cobler, the city editor at the Fort Collins Coloradoan, where I was the night cops reporter. Monday was one of my regular days off.
He was succinct: “Kevin, it’s Chris. Listen, Tom Sutherland is going to be released today. I need you to come in.”
On July 18, 1989, I had walked into the Coloradoan’s newsroom for my first shift as a reporter for the paper, a copy of that morning’s paper tucked under my arm. On the front page, above the left-hand column, was a small box that ran every day with a replica of a yellow ribbon stretched across it.
Tom Sutherland of Fort Collins
has been held captive in Lebanon
since June 9, 1985.
At that point, I knew the thumbnail of Tom’s story. Longtime Colorado State University professor. Dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut. One of dozens of Westerners kidnapped during Lebanon’s civil war. Husband. Father.
He hadn’t been seen since gun-toting fighters snatched him off a road near Beirut’s airport. Some of the other hostages included Presbyterian minister Benjamin Wier, Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, and Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite.
Living and working as a reporter in Fort Collins, I would come to know Tom initially through his wife, Jean, and two of their daughters, Kit and Joan. During those long years of uncertainty and worry, they were the public face of their family’s crisis, speaking at boisterous public rallies in support of Tom, or at small gatherings, like the quiet dedication of a garden in his honor at CSU.
They were unfailingly accommodating – patient, tolerant, willing to talk to a young reporter searching for a new angle in an ongoing story.
More than once, I asked Jean some form of the same question: How do you deal with the fear, the anxiety, the not-knowing?
Each time, she answered the same way: “We just hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”
It’s kind of hard to imagine it now, but in 1991 there were no smartphones and there was no internet – at least not one that anyone had access to. I arrived in the newsroom that Monday morning to find my colleagues working the phones, pulling the latest bulletins off the wires, checking the television, cobbling together stories for an “extra” – a special edition of the paper that would come out in the middle of the day.
It was the first time I ever worked on an “extra” – and though I would be involved in several others, it would be the only one that reported happy news.
As the day wore on, a recurring question was asked in the newsroom: When are we going to see Tom?
And then, on the small television near the city desk, he appeared, alongside Waite. They had been driven into Syria and had stepped before the TV cameras. Tom looked pale but strong, and I would catch my first glimpse of his personality, which could be alternately formal and playful, as he spoke for the first time.
“Mr. deputy foreign minister, Mr. ambassador from the United States, Mr. ambassador from the United Kingdom,” he began, “as some of you may know, I'm an old college prof from way back and when I get up to speak I generally get 50 minutes, which is about five times longer than I've had to go to the bathroom every day for the last seven years. But that's another story.”
Exactly a week later, I would be in Northern California and meet Tom face-to-face for the first time.
He had initially been flown to Germany, where he was reunited with Jean, Kit and Joan. But his oldest daughter, Ann, was in California, very pregnant, and a trans-Atlantic flight was out of the question. So the plan was for Tom and the rest of the family to travel to the Bay Area for a reunion with Ann. The trip had been delayed a few days while Tom was treated for an ulcer in Germany.
His flight was due in San Francisco the evening of Nov. 25.
That morning, I called Ann and asked if I could come by her Berkeley home with photographer Michael Madrid. She said she was cleaning the house, but if we could talk to her while she was working we were welcome to stop by. It was the first time I’d met her, but like Jean and Kit and Joan she was patient with us. A little later, other reporters showed up, unannounced. She let them in, then agreed to vacuum for the cameras.
A few hours later, at the airport, more than 150 reporters and photographers jostled for spots around the thicket of microphones, awaiting Tom’s arrival.
But first, the family met in a private room off the concourse. As we waited, yelps of pure joy leaked from that room, where Tom met a granddaughter – Ann’s daughter, Simone – and a son-in-law for the first time.
Then he emerged and faced us.
“Hello, America,” he beamed.
He talked about getting reacquainted with his family, about hugging his granddaughter for the first time, about being treated like a celebrity on his flight back to the U.S.
Over the coming months, as Tom threw himself into a frenetic speaking schedule, I spent a lot of time with him – both with other reporters and during a series of long one-on-one interviews that allowed me to reconstruct his 6½-year ordeal. Most of those sessions occurred in the family room of his Fort Collins home, where the fireplace was warm and books lined the finely finished shelves.
There was no subject he would avoid, no question he would not answer. He spoke honestly of his disdain for Waite, his fellow hostage, and of his love for Anderson, the AP correspondent. He described teaching the newsman to play bridge, and Anderson, in turn, teaching him to play chess, their pieces fashioned from bits of foil they peeled from their daily rations of cheese.
Always, my tape recorder ran. The transcript of those talks covers 81 pages, single-spaced. After I learned that Tom had died last week, at age 85, I headed to my home office and pulled the yellowing, faded sheaf of paper from my file cabinet, flipping through the pages and stopping to linger over his words.
On the early, dark days, when he was regularly beaten: “Confrontation of any sort was not tolerated by those guys. Any time they told us to do something, if we didn’t do it absolutely right now, that was a confrontation and a challenge to their authority, and they had very short tempers. They would just flare up in nothing flat. Zoom. And they’d get very angry, so we decided it’s just not worth it. Whatever they say just do it. Period. So we became about like three-year-old children again.”
On the times he was held alone, when he would search his memory banks for a time and a place, like the weekends in 1968 he helped a friend build a ski cabin: “You just had to call up as many pleasant memories as you possibly could to give you something to think about and to reflect on, let your mind work on. Because when you’re sitting like that hour after hour after hour after hour, nobody to talk to, no books to read, nothing to occupy your mind whatsoever, except what you deliberately concoct for your mind to work on – oh boy, you just have to come up with something like that.”
On his darkest days, when he pulled a plastic bag over his head and tied it tightly around his neck with a sock, trying to kill himself: “That would get really painful and then somehow your mind sorta explodes into some other dimension, and you see – or at least I did – my wife and three daughters there just vividly in front of my eyes, and I would just think, my God, how can I do this to them?”
As I flip through the pages of that transcript, I can hear Tom’s voice.
I can hear him talk about the futility of holding a grudge against his captors.
“What good would it do?” he asked me once. “What’s the use? It wouldn’t do anything to them – it would only do something to me. No, man. That’s a waste of time.”
I can hear him talk about the idea of sitting down to dinner with his captors to discuss all of it.
And I can see the twinkle in his eye when I asked him what he thought of the fact several psychologists had publicly worried that he was doing too much, giving too many talks, driving himself too hard after his nightmarish experience.
“Not enough psychologists have been hostages,” he said then.
I left Fort Collins in 1997, and I had only sporadic contact with Tom after that. I interviewed him twice in 2001 – once on September 11, once a couple months later for a story that touched on the tenth anniversary of his release.
There were a few phone calls in the ensuing years, and a chance meeting – and a warm discussion – at a CSU football game.
But I’d think about him from time to time, and marvel anew at a man who was put through a horrific ordeal and came out the other side lacking the bitterness and animosity that I would have expected.
Just a few weeks ago, I was digging through my file cabinet when I came across the cassette tapes from those interviews, and the transcript, and I started thinking about Tom.
One of his favorite expressions immediately came to mind.
“Being a former hostage is the greatest job in the world,” he would say.
And then, after a beat, he’d break into a little grin and add: “The apprenticeship was pretty rough, though.”
I thought fleetingly about picking up the phone, but I was busy with something else and I didn’t do it.
I wish I had.