Winter 2008 Vol. VI, No. 2
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?
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
overhead every once in awhile, so it wasn’t exactly a calm environment.
President Malcolm Kerr assigned me the Dodge house halfway up the tennis
steps, which was simply a wonderful place to live. 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. We were only two minutes
away from the tennis courts, and Jean and I would go out there after everyone
else had gone home (we could see when the courts were empty) and just
play tennis until it was about dinnertime.
MG: What were your first impressions of the students, and how did they
compare with your students in the United States?
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
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?
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
I am proud to claim that I got the first group of students for a long
time to go over to the farm. 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.
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.
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. 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 students
who had given him a lot of trouble. 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, it was these students who showed
the most grief of all.
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
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.
MG: But, of course, your biggest memory of the war must have been the
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. (Sutherland’s book At Your Own Risk, written
with his wife Jean, details his memories of the war years—editors.)
MG: What has been the impact of AUB on your life?
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.
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… 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. When I contrasted my life with what those young men, members of
Hizbollah, were having to go through, 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.
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 exchange 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 that challenge.
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.
Partnerships for AUB
My father, Dr. Samih Alami, passed away on March 5, 1997, fifty years
after he first came to AUB to live on the AUB/ IC campus as a student.
He came from Gaza in 1947, and years later, in 1968, he returned to work
in the Department of Laboratory Medicine, where he was also the department
chair. He later lived in Faculty
A successful physician in Libya recently told my cousin, “I owe my life
to Samih Alami.” I have often heard this in one way or another. My father
was deeply committed to the Palestinian Student’s Fund but he eventually
helped sponsor thousands of needy students of many different backgrounds.
My family’s relationship with AUB continues because of my father’s devotion
to the University, and the emotional attachment his devotion fostered
in us. He never left Beirut during the height of the civil war, and he
was a relentless fundraiser for AUH.
When he passed away, we founded the Samih Alami Medical Student Scholarship
Fund. It is our family’s meek attempt at filling my father’s shoes and
maintaining his legacy.”
Ramzi Samih Alami (BS ’94, MD ’98)
For further information on establishing an endowed scholarship fund at
AUB, please contact Imad Baalbaki (firstname.lastname@example.org)