Winter 2008 Vol. VI, No. 2
Fire: Reflections Interview with Tom Sutherland
Tom Sutherland came to AUB as dean of the Faculty of Agricultural
and Food Sciences in 1983. Two years later, he was tragically kidnapped
by gunmen on his way into town from the airport, mistaken, some said,
for President Calvin Plimpton, who was due to arrive about the same time.
Dean Sutherland disappeared, held hostage by Islamic militants for more
than six years-78 months, 2,354 days-in captivity. He was released on
November 18, 1991 and returned to his home in Fort Collins, Colorado.
MG: When did you first arrive in Beirut and what were your first impressions?
TS: I arrived at AUB in June of 1983. I thought the campus was
beautiful. It was a veritable garden, but unfortunately there were still
shells flying over head every once in awhile, so it wasn't exactly a calm
environment. Nonetheless the AUB campus itself seemed to be a real haven.
There were no shells being deliberately aimed at AUB, especially not at
the hospital, AUH, where many of the victims of the fighting were being
President Malcolm Kerr assigned me the Dodge house halfway up the tennis
steps, which was simply a wonderful place to live. It had lots of space-not
an awful lot of rooms, but huge rooms, which we enjoyed very much. I had
lived in Marquand House for the first few months I was there, and then
moved in to the Dodge house a month or so before Jean [his wife] arrived.
When she and our daughters Kit and Joan came, we had just a wonderful
time living in there. We were only two minutes away from the tennis courts,
and Jean and I would go out there after every one else had gone home (we
could see when the courts were empty) and just play tennis until it was
about dinner time. So it was just a very, very convenient place.
MG: What were your first impressions of the students, and how did they
compare with your students in the United States?
TS: The students at AUB were, frankly, better trained and brighter
than the students we were accustomed to teaching at Colorado State University.
CSU is a land grant university, and so the really bright students from
around northern Colorado were going to Princeton and Stanford and Harvard.
None of them-or at least, very few of them-were coming to us, whereas
the AUB was getting, originally, students from all over the United States
as well as from the Middle East. But by the time I arrived, there were
very few foreign students; most of the students were Lebanese, and 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
MG: Where did you teach most of your classes?
TS: I didn't teach any classes at all. I was going to teach. I
wanted to teach, but when I first arrived there were so many things that
were hanging fire-to get money to redo the Agriculture Building and Building
B. But we never did quite get that done-there were all kinds of other
needs at the time, over at the farm as well as on the main campus. Vice
President Hallab was most helpful getting things lined up and getting
lots of money to redo the farm in the Beqa'a, which had taken lots of
shelling and hits during the war, so there were lots of structures which
needed to be rebuilt and refurbished.
I am proud to claim that I got the first group of students for a long
time to go over to the farm. They were so happy to get there, onto the
farm, and we just had a wonderful time organizing their visit. Because
of the political situation, some students were not able to go to the Beqa'a,
so they went instead to the University of Amman in Jordan. The university
there was willing to work with us to take in these students for practical
work on a farm. That really helped, and we were grateful to the Jordanians
for their co-operation. The students had a good time in the Beqa'a-they
learned a lot. Many of them, of course, had actually grown up in Beirut,
and they had had very little up close connection with agriculture. In
fact, their only experience with plants and soil was with the flower pots
on their balconies. When they got to the Beqa'a they had a marvelous time
getting introduced to the machinery and to the cropping and harvesting
routines. Thus the farm was a great experience for them. The Ford Foundation
had given us quite a bit of money to redo it, which, of course, was a
challenge, but really a very interesting challenge and a worthwhile venture.
MG: Although as dean you didn't teach, what do you think the students
and faculty might remember about your leadership?
TS: I always made a point of talking to the students. At that time
there seemed to be a feeling that faculty were "above" the students, which
seemed also to be a generally accepted thing in Lebanon. You simply didn't
stop to take the time to talk to people as "trivial" as students. I didn't
feel that way at all. I had just come from an American land grant university
where you advised students and made provisions for them to come and talk
to you, to pre-register and discuss their problems and so on. But frankly,
at that time-I don't know how it is now-at that time that wasn't the practice
MG: As dean, did you ever do much advising of students?
Not a lot of formal counseling but, what I did do, was stop and sit down
at the picnic tables-they always had a picnic table right there just outside
the entrance to wing A of the Agriculture Building-and I would sit down
there and spend a lot of time talking to the students. So sometimes when
I came out of my office to go up to a meeting of the Board of Deans, they
would nab me and want to talk to me, so invariably I arrived on upper
campus late for every meeting, because I'd been talking with the students.
Which as I said, was largely unheard of back then. But, I tell you, the
students loved it. They knew that they could get their gripes and their
arguments listened to.
MG: Do you keep in touch with any of the students from that time?
A few of them but, of course, I was gone for so long-six and a half years
in captivity. But actually several of the students ended up right here
in Fort Collins, so we've had dinners and events with them. Some of them,
when I came home, were working on PhDs at Colorado State. Most of those
came because they knew I had come from here; they wanted to show sympathy
for me, and to show that they cared about AUB and I guess, a little about
me. Since I've been home sixteen years now, I don't have real contact
with students-perhaps indirect contact through the Sutherland Awards my
wife Jean established when I was in captivity.
MG: What were the biggest changes while you were at AUB?
The biggest tragedy of all was the assassination of Malcolm Kerr. Malcolm
was such a popular president. The students all loved him. Even the ones
who made his life pretty difficult. But he would stay with them, talk
to them, and work with them, and eventually when the campus had the three-day
grieving period after Malcolm was killed, they were the ones who showed
the most grief.
Another change was the money that poured into the farm. Abdul Hamid Hallab
was responsible for getting a lot of that money. He was a fund-raiser
par-excellence. He knew everybody in the whole Gulf area and the whole
Middle East, and he was excellent at raising money.
MG: Of course, your memories of the war must have been completely overshadowed
by your kidnapping, but what were your memories of the effect of the war
TS: One of the results of the war was that the Christian students
didn't dare to come across the Green Line to the main campus at AUB, so
I arranged with Malcolm to develop a program in the Christian area for
the students trapped over there.
Whereupon at least one person said to me at the time, "You realize that
you've just established a Faculty of Agriculture at the OCP (Off Campus
Program)?" But I said, "Oh, no. When we are done we'll just kill that
program and get everyone back on the main campus." He said, "No, you won't
ever be able to do that."
And he was basically correct, I would say, because until the time I was
kidnapped, we were never able to quell the program at the OCP. The OCP
was a reasonably good program-we had good instructors over there-but it
wasn't at all the quality program that we had on the main campus, and
I felt that the students who were in that OCP program were being short-changed;
they were not getting the whole wealth of AUB's instruction program. But
at least it was better than nothing; they were at least doing something
over there, since they couldn't come to the main campus.
But there was no way we could keep two campuses. AUB could not afford
another campus on the east side at the level of the campus in Ras Beirut.
It just wasn't possible with the kind of money we had available.
MG: But, of course, your biggest memory of the war must have been the
TS: Yes. We were held in "cells," and on occasion there were shells
landing very, very close to us; frankly, it scared the liver out of me
to have those shells exploding, essentially outside of our building. The
guards would come in and say, "Don't afraid, don't afraid. It's okay.
No broblem." But anybody who has had a 155 mm shell fall within a few
hundred yards and says "Don't afraid" is either stupid or not rational
about what shells are. I tell you, I was afraid.
MG. Maybe we should simply just refer the readers for your memories
of the war years to your book.
TS: Yes. We should give you some copies of our book, At Your Own
Risk, to take back with you. We wrote it jointly, so it has the outside
story from Jean and the inside story from me.
MG: What has been the impact of AUB on your life?
TS: That is hard to separate from captivity. Frankly, I enjoyed
being an administrator at AUB, for a number of reasons, perhaps the main
one being that as dean, you were responsible for your own budget. You
had to raise your money within the faculty, and then you could more or
less spend it as you wished, within reason, of course. You couldn't abscond
with a lot of funds or anything, but in the state system I had been used
to here in Colorado, you just couldn't do anything with the funds without
going through multiple levels of bureaucracy.
At AUB I had a good deal of fiscal freedom to run our program as I wanted
to, and of course I had some very encouraging people on the faculty who
gave me good guidance about what we should be doing with our money, how
we could attract more students, etc., and it was also interesting to be
involved in a private university where students were very highly selected,
very excellent students. We had a lot of discussion in the faculty about
which direction we wanted to take, and which new classes we wanted to
I got good experience at AUB for the two years I was a free man, but of
course, being taken hostage after that, being chained to a wall for 78
months, during which time, lots of things were happening in Lebanon, had
a big impact. It became obvious that I would never be able to go back
to AUB, for fear that I might be kidnapped again, so AUB led to that life-changing
experience of being a hostage, and then ultimately being free. And of
course, regaining my freedom, and then arriving back in the United States
was totally euphoric for me, because after being chained to the wall for
78 months and not being able to do anything, anything at all, without
the permission of the guards, who were really, in many respects-what should
I say-underprivileged, was tough. Those guards had never had much of a
chance in life, any of them. They had at the best of times gone to the
second or first grade, but they had never been given the chance to go
on to high school or college or anything like that. By contrast, here
was I-a man who had gone through grade school, high school, college, and
graduate school, and had finally become a dean at one of the most prestigious
universities in the whole Middle East.
It was euphoric for me to have that experience. When I contrasted my life
with what those young men, I honestly felt sorry for them, which led some
of the reviewers of our book to say that I was suffering from the Stockholm
syndrome, which was ridiculous in the extreme. None of us had ever gone
through anything even remotely resembling the Stockholm syndrome. In this
syndrome, deriving its name from a Stockholm bank robbery in 1973, the
hostage or hostages come to believe that their captors are doing the right
thing, while their government is in the wrong. Now, we felt sorry for
those young men, sure, but we were not at all happy with the way they
were treating us.
MG: As a former dean, what would you say to your former faculty members
of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences?
I chuckle when I think of an interchange I had with the late Dr. Raja
Khuri, then dean of the Faculty of Medicine. I told him that Agriculture
was the most important faculty in the University. He did not respond,
but simply looked at me in disbelief. "You don't believe me do you?" I
suggested. "No," he replied. "The Medical Faculty is of course the most
important by far." I challenged his belief by asking, "Then tell me, what
has medicine been able to do for the starving masses all across the north
African continent?" His jaw dropped, for he did not have a response to
But I would like to say a special word of thanks to Nahla (Baba), Hwalla
now dean of FAFS, and Adib Saad, associate dean when I was there, for
all the help they gave me. I was there as a neophyte. I knew very, very
little about the whole Middle East, but Nahla and Adib were the two who
gave me a great deal of valuable advice.
In truth, the faculty members of FAFS in those days were enthusiastic
about their work and accomplishments, and have survived many wars and
uprisings. So I send to them all my best wishes for a satisfactory, successful,
and ongoing contribution to the people of the Middle East and the world.