Former Beirut hostage dies in US aged 85

Thomas Sutherland
Thomas Sutherland

Falkirk-born academic Thomas Sutherland – who was taken hostage in Beirut 30 years ago – died last week at the age of 85.

Thomas came to the world’s attention when he was taken hostage in 1985 at the height of Lebanon’s civil war along with journalist Terry Anderson, BBC reporter John McCarthy and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s peace envoy Terry Waite.

For the next six years he was held in darkened rooms, often chained and blindfolded and, on some occasions, badly beaten.

Thomas joined the faculty at the American University of Beirut during a turbulent time in Lebanon’s affairs, but he refused to let the war disrupt his love of teaching.

He stated: “When you’re teaching class you can’t pay any attention to the gunfire. Otherwise you lose the attention of the students, and they get worried and want to leave.”

This spirit was instilled in Thomas from an early age.

The son of a dairy farmer, he was born on May 3, 1931 in Falkirk and attended Falkirk High School, where he was a diligent pupil and a talented footballer.

After leaving school, he signed for Rangers while reading agriculture at Glasgow University but his studies did not allow time for football.

Graduating in 1953 he joined the agriculture faculty at Colorado State University, where he was appointed a professor of animal genetics. Although he would spend much of his life in America, becoming a US citizen, Thomas remained a proud Scot.

In 1983 he accepted the challenge to be first Dean of Agriculture at the American University in Beirut.

He and his wife Jean, who taught English, became an integral part of university and Beirut life before his terrifying journey into captivity.

He described his hostage ordeal in detail in his book At Your Own Risk.

“Though I blessedly didn’t know it then, that was the last time I would see the sun for the next six and a half years.”

Thomas was once savagely beaten with a rubber truncheon on the soles of his feet by his Hezbollah abductors.

By the time he was set free in 1991 he had spent a total of 2353 days in captivity.

He came home to a hero’s welcome and soon returned to his work at Colorado State University, where he became professor emeritus after his retirement.

President George HW Bush called him a “true American hero”.

Thomas died on July 23 in Colorado, USA.

He is survived by wife Jean and their three daughters.