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Arts & Life

Remembering Tom Sutherland: Educator, Former Hostage And Fort Collins' Renowned Philanthropist

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Colorado State University
Tom Sutherland at CSU Founders Day, 2014

Many people around the world knew Thomas Sutherland as one of the U.S. citizens held hostage by terrorists in Beirut from 1985 - 1991. But many in the Fort Collins area will remember Sutherland as a beloved professor, a quietly generous benefactor of the arts, and a good friend.

Sutherland, 85, died Friday July 22, 2016, at his home in Northern Colorado.

"Tom was someone who had an absolutely exhilarating, boundless love of life," said Wendy Ishii, founding artistic director of Bas Bleu Theatre Company in Fort Collins. "He was the best raconteur I’ve ever met. I could listen to his stories all day long – and sometimes did – because he loved to tell stories. And he was a born teacher."

Born and raised in Scotland, Sutherland came to the United States in the 1950s. He became a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, where he taught for 26 years before taking a leave to serve as the dean of agriculture for American University of Beirut, Lebanon in 1983.

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Credit Greeley Tribune
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Greeley Tribune

He was one of more than 50 people captured by Islamic militants June 9, 1985. Sutherland spent 2,354 days as a captive before being freed in 1991.

In 2001, the Sutherland family received $35 million in a settlement from frozen Iranian assets because of evidence the government had directed the kidnapping of Americans in Lebanon.

With that settlement, Sutherland and his wife Jean had an enormous impact on the Northern Colorado arts community, Ishii said. They donated money to nonprofits like Bas Bleu, Open Stage Theatre, the Larimer Chorale, and the Fort Collins Symphony.

"He said one of the things that helped him through his captivity was the arts — because that’s how we make sense out of life, through stories and through the arts," Ishii said. "And I think he knew the profound importance of that and so he wanted to give back to this community and beyond to help sustain them, so that generations to come can have a better comprehension of what this thing called life is."

The Sutherlands also had a helping hand in KUNC become a community station after the University of Northern Colorado put the station up for sale. Neil Best, KUNC’s longtime CEO and president, is quick to point out that their pledge of support convinced many to give to preserve the station’s independence.

"An inspiration for many was the endorsement of Tom and Jean, and a very generous, very public pledge that they made in support of the station which helped us raise over $2 million in 20 days, so we could afford to continue the legacy of KUNC," Best said.

In a statement, Colorado State University president Tony Frank noted that Sutherland’s resolve during his capture was a powerful lesson in “courage, faith and hope.”

“The entire Colorado State University community joins once again in honoring a true hero – who believed that an understanding of agricultural science could bring relief to people and communities in hunger — and that education could be a force for good and light in our world that would transcend borders and differences among nations,” Frank’s statement continued.

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