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Family remembers former CSU professor Thomas Sutherland

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FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- He was a Colorado State University professor who captured the attention of the world 31 years ago when he was kidnapped by Islamic militants.

Thomas Sutherland spent 6 1/2 years locked away as a hostage in a basement prison in Beirut. But his captors could never extinguish his light. Instead, old age has taken the 85-year-old, who died at his Fort Collins home Friday.

"He was cracking jokes after six years of captivity,” said his eldest daughter, Ann Sutherland.

Laughter is not what you'd expect to hear two days after the death of their father, their mom’s husband and an American hero.

"He didn't want anything sad," said his youngest daughter, Joan Sears.

They say happiness is exactly what their dad would have wanted. It’s a spirit they say carried him through 2,354 dark days in captivity, when even Islamist militants couldn't rob him of his joy.

"It was a line of people the whole way," said his middle daughter, Kit Sutherland, about more than 10,000 people who cheered his return to the CSU campus on Dec. 1, 1991.

"He always felt so lucky to come through that and to come out and have another 25 years," said Sutherland's widow, Jean.

Twenty-five more years that he packed full of giving of himself -- and to others through a foundation with money he won in a lawsuit against Iran.

"The thing that stands out is his generosity of spirit. He was generous with his time with his students. He was generous with his money," Ann Sutherland said.

It's like he knew he had been given the gift of time. And he made the most of it -- until his body could no longer keep going.

"He kind of had a hard time the last three months. So to him, it was time to go," Jean Sutherland said.

And he went peacefully into the night.

“I was able to kiss him and say, ‘I love you’,” Jean Sutherland said. "We are all doing very well. I was able to be with him right at the end."

It's not what you'd expect to hear two days after the death of such a giant. But if you knew Sutherland, you knew this is how he would have wanted it.

"I really want to have Tom speak through me to say, ‘Thank you,’” Jean Sutherland said.

“He wanted to be remembered for one thing -- he’s the one who wanted to do things for people,” Ann Sutherland said.

Despite Sutherland's death, his family's foundation continues. He had a heart for music and the arts that helped him get through his time locked away. He also supported education and social service.

There will be a celebration of his life in mid-August at CSU. Those plans are still being finalized.