The American University of Beirut mourns the passing away of former Dean, Dr. Thomas Sutherland, who passed away Friday night in Colorado, USA at age 85. He served as Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences at AUB from 1983 until 1985 when he was taken hostage during the Lebanese civil war and held captive for more than six years.
Sutherland was kidnapped on June 9, 1985, on his way from Beirut airport. It is thought he was mistaken for AUB President Calvin Plimpton, who was due to arrive at about the same time. He was released under a deal brokered by the United Nations on November 18, 1991 and returned to his home in Fort Collins, Colorado, cheered by thousands upon arrival.
Known for his positivity, Sutherland never stopped giving even in captivity: he taught his fellow hostages French and, without paper or pen, gave Terry Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief, courses in Agriculture during their joint incarceration.
Sutherland was appointed Dean of agriculture at AUB in 1983. He had opted with his wife, Jean Ann Murray who started teaching English at the University, to join the faculty at a time when Lebanon was anything but stable. The civil war was in its ninth year; the Israeli occupation was in its second year. It was a time of chaos and shortage of facilities and food. But Sutherland was on a mission to make a difference, so he took a leave of absence from his 26 year career teaching animal science at Colorado State University (CSU), Fort Collins, and joined AUB.
"When you're teaching class, you can't pay any attention to the firing, otherwise you lose the attention of the students and they get worried and want to leave," he told Times correspondent William Tuohy in an interview published in March, 1984, indicating that he was determined to stay even though AUB President Malcolm Kerr had been assassinated earlier that year.
As dean, Sutherland focused on keeping his faculty running despite the political instability. He arranged with President Malcolm Kerr to develop an agriculture program in the Eastern side of Beirut as part of the Off Campus Program (OCP) for students who did not dare to come across the Green Line to the main campus at AUB. With financial support through AUB’s Vice President at the time Abdul Hamid Hallab, Sutherland prioritized the rebuilding of structures and the redoing of the Agriculture Building, building B, and the farm in Beqa’a, as shelling had caused much damage there.
“Dr. Sutherland’s outstanding leadership of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences was instrumental in enhancing the Faculty’s excellence during very hard times, a matter which made him highly respected by FAFS faculty, students, and AUB community. He was visionary, fair, objective, and compassionate.” said Dean of FAFS, Dr. Nahla Hwalla, who credits her career to Dr. Sutherland for recruiting her as a faculty member at the Nutrition and Food Science Department.
He was the first to take agriculture students back to the Beqa’a after a long time during the difficult political situation where they could become familiar with the machinery, the cropping, and the harvesting routines.
Known for his commitment for his students, Dean Sutherland was often late for meetings at College Hall as he sat to have long discussions with them outside the FAFS building on Lower Campus. “The students loved it. They knew that they could get their gripes and their arguments listened to,” he said in an interview with AUB’s MainGate magazine in 2008.
In that interview, Dr. Sutherland recalled his impression of AUB’s students. “The students at AUB were, frankly, better trained and brighter than the students we were accustomed to teaching,” he said. “It was interesting to be involved in a private university where students were very highly selected and very, very bright. I was genuinely impressed with how talented and capable all those students were. And I say that most sincerely.” Sutherland kept in touch with AUB students when they visited him in Colorado and indirectly through philanthropic efforts he funded with his wife.
Sutherland refused to let his experience of being a hostage consume his life and showed great magnanimity after his release. At a press conference, he said he wouldn’t mind returning to Beirut “if it proves possible to go back to help with the rebuilding process.” He was not bitter. “Being bitter and angry are just consuming emotions, and that doesn’t get you any better,” he told the Coloradoan in 2001 in an interview marking the tenth anniversary of his release.
His positivity continued well after his return to Colorado in 1991 when he was made Professor Emeritus at CSU. As a great story teller, he became a speaker and an advocate for peace and for agriculture as a tool to relieve hunger and suffering. He and co-authored with his wife At Your Own Risk: An American Chronicle of Crisis and Captivity in the Middle East, which chronicled their individual experiences during his abduction and portrays some of the strife that was ongoing in the Middle East.
He was also an enthusiastic supporter of local philanthropic efforts. He established with his wife, Jean, the Sutherland Family Foundation to support Fort Collins nonprofits and donated a fortune to local organizations and in support of the arts with most of the money they received from a lawsuit against Iran for its involvement in the hostage situation.
Dr. Sutherland was often referred to as a “Fort Collins icon”. Many described him as the survivor, hero, and the light of hope. He was also honored early on in his career with the Distinguished Teacher Award from the American Society of Animal Science in 1975 and the Harris T. Guard Distinguished Service Award for Teaching from Colorado State University in 1976. In 2014, he was honored with a CSU Founders Day Medal in recognition of his and his wife’s service to the University, Fort Collins, and higher education worldwide.
“Dr. Sutherland has been a longtime supporter of FAFS and AUB, and he established the Dean Thomas Sutherland annual awards for graduate excellence and undergraduate excellence,” said Dean Hwalla. “His optimism and courage greatly influenced and inspired others. His legacy of compassion will continue with us.”
Dr. Sutherland is survived by wife Jean; three daughters, Kit, Joan, and Ann; and several grandchildren.