After being held hostage in Iran for 444 days, Bruce Laingen and 51 other Americans safely returned to the United States amid celebrations and parades.
But all Laingen, the top U.S. diplomat in Iran, wanted back in January 1981 was to reconnect with the small farming community in southern Minnesota where his heart was rooted.
“He was a big-shot diplomat, but he was always more comfortable being on the farm, baling hay in a place where no one made a fuss about you,” Laingen’s son, Chip, recalled Tuesday. “He wanted to embrace where he came from and the people who meant the most to him.”
Laingen, who lived most of his adult life in Bethesda, Md., died Monday at age 96. Memorial services will be held later this summer in his hometown of Odin, about 125 miles southwest of Minneapolis. Although his career in the foreign service spanned 38 years, many Minnesotans best remember Laingen as one of the Americans taken hostage when radical Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.
Laingen had first served in the U.S. consulate in Mashhad, Iran, in the 1950s. Then in June 1979, he returned to Iran when President Jimmy Carter appointed him U.S. chargé d’affaires.
Months before the embassy takeover and amid rising tensions, Laingen warned U.S. officials not to allow Iran’s deposed shah to enter the United States for medical treatment.
“When President Jimmy Carter authorized that, it was the final straw for the radical students who believed the U.S. was really the devil,” said Laingen’s son.
Americans were gripped by nightly reports of the high-stakes hostage standoff. Laingen’s wife, Penne, tied a yellow ribbon around the oak tree in the front yard of their Bethesda home.
Americans quickly followed suit in solidarity and hope that the Americans would be safely returned.
News clips often showed Laingen bound and blindfolded. Despite that, Laingen felt he was treated fairly by his captives, his son said.
While most of the hostages were held in the embassy, Laingen and two others were held captive in the Iranian Foreign Ministry Office, where they were when the crisis began.
“He was the captain of the ship and he didn’t know what was happening to his people,” said Chip Laingen, who lives in Woodbury.
As the crisis wound down, Laingen was brought to the embassy for the remaining 44 days and kept in solitary confinement, his son said.
On their return to the U.S., the hostages received a heroes’ welcome, leaving Laingen uncomfortable with the attention. Captive in Iran, he had no idea it had become a major news story back home.
“He was overwhelmed because he’s such a humble person,” his son said.
After the crisis ended, Laingen was long driven to repair relations between Iran and the United States, his son said. He was frustrated that it never changed and only seemed to get worse.
Even so, his father remained optimistic, believing there was always a reason to be hopeful.
“I grew up in the dust-storm days of the ’20s and ’30s in Minnesota,” Bruce Laingen said in a 2009 interview with the Star Tribune. “You need a lot of optimism to cope with that situation. You have to be an optimist to farm in southern Minnesota even today.”
Even after being held hostage, Laingen held a deep respect and love for the Iranian people and their culture.
“He always said there was much more in common between the U.S. and Iran but that it was hijacked by militant Islam,” Chip Laingen said.
Always the consummate diplomat, Laingen believed differences could be mended if people listened and talked.
“You find something you have in common and start there,” Chip Laingen said. “I don’t know if that’s a farm-boy thing or a Norwegian thing. But it was so easy for him and he did it with such grace.”
When he met people, he often stood sideways to them, unfolding his arms and almost leaning in. “It was kind of an aw, shucks Minnesota thing,” Chip Laingen said.
Laingen had traveled the world, serving in the South Pacific as a Navy officer during World War II and in the foreign service at posts in Germany, Pakistan and Afghanistan. President Gerald Ford appointed him U.S. ambassador to Malta in 1977.
He was a man who left for war and became intrigued with the big world but often returned to the farm.
“He went from a simple, simple life where you got up, you tended crops, you work your tail off … and you go to church on Sunday,” his son said. “He wanted to be in the game, but I think he knew he could always come home to the farm, the simplicity, the peace.”
Laingen is also survived by his wife and other sons, William of St. Louis, Mo., and James of Haymarket, Va.; and a sister, Norma Marsh of Hastings.
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788