Thirty years ago today, 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days were blindfolded and delivered to a pair of waiting jets while a sea of bearded faces chanted "death to America, death to Reagan." Here in the United States, Ronald Reagan was just concluding his inaugural address when the planes lifted off the ground to freedom.
Kathryn "Kate" Koob, 72, was one of two women among those held captive, and she is the only female hostage still living. Koob (pronounced "kobe" as in robe) had arrived in Tehran to serve as director of the Iran-American Society" a nonprofit organization established by the U.S. government to foster educational and community ties between the two countries " only four months before the American embassy was seized by Iranian militants on Nov. 4, 1979. From her office 2 miles away, she relayed information to Washington for a day before she, too, was captured.
Upon their return to the United States, the hostages were celebrated with a ticker-tape parade in New York City and tickets to Broadway shows. They met Presidents Jimmy Carter and Reagan. But, Koob told the AARP Bulletin in a telephone interview from her home in Waverly, Iowa, nothing could compare with the feeling of "being with my family seeing my mom and my dad and then getting together with all of my sisters and my nieces and nephews."
Although she and her hostage roommate, Elizabeth "Ann" Swift, who died in a horseback-riding accident in 2004, were never abused by their captors, they lived with the fear that they could be brutally interrogated or executed at any time.
A life-changing experience
Her sense of humor, her Lutheran faith and prayer sustained her. "The idea of a contemplative lifestyle intrigued me," she wrote in her book, Guest of the Revolution. "What would it be like? Here was my opportunity to find out." She worked out a schedule for herself, spending each morning in prayer and concentrating on a different topic. After several days, she was delighted to find an Armed Forces Service Hymnal on a closet shelf in the embassy, where she was being held.
When given the opportunity to speak to her family on camera at Christmas in 1980, she joked about how grateful she was to have lost weight and sang "Away in a Manger" for her nieces and nephews, touching the hearts of Americans who saw her on television.
The low point for Koob came shortly afterward, on Jan. 1, 1981, just weeks before she would be released. "We realized we'd lost a whole year. For all practical purposes 1980 didn't exist," she recalled.
Looking back, she said, her captivity was a part of the background of her life, but doesn't shape her life. And, some positive things came of it: the development of her spiritual life and her embrace of the biblical admonition to love your enemies.
"People would say, 'Well, do you love your enemies?' when I first came home. And I said, 'Well, I don't know, but if the absence of anger, bitterness, hatred [and] resentment means love, then I guess I do. And then, as I was teaching a course in reconciliation at Wartburg [College] many, many years later, I realized that loving your enemies is a gift of the grace of God. You wonder how could I do this and then you discover it's not you, it's the spirit of God in you that enables and empowers you."
She told the Associated Press in 2004, "I have too much to do to stand around hating a nation and a people who did what they thought was right for their country."
Life after being a hostage
After her release, she returned to the foreign service with assignments in Austria, Germany and Australia, retiring in 1996 to her home state of Iowa, where she taught at Wartburg. She never returned to Iran, for fear of worrying her family, but has Iranian friends and enjoys Iranian food.
In 1998, she got a second master's degree in religion from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Recently retired from Wartburg, she jokes that work was interfering with her travel plans. Never married, she has no children, but lives within minutes of her four sisters, who are among her "best friends." She goes to water aerobics three times a week, works out with a "wonderful young trainer" and is dealing with some arthritis in her knees.
Throughout her life, she has learned much about overcoming adversity and jokes that she can deliver an entire speech about the topic. Her system for dealing with any problem, she said, is acknowledging it, accepting it, sorting out the alternatives, and then achieving results. "It's the four A's of senior living, I think," she said.
Today, she plans to attend her first reunion with the other hostages at the Thayer Hotel, on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where the hostages were originally reunited with their families. She estimates that about 40 of them are still living.
"I was a political prisoner and a hostage, but there are people who are held hostage in everyday life, and that's so important that people understand that when you lose a job, there's a family crisis, kids don't turn out the way you want, this can turn you into a hostage to that situation," she said. "I didn't deal with it any differently than people deal with the things that they're dealt in everyday life. Mine just happened to be very public."
Kitty Bennett is a news researcher and writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.