Humphrey School News—July 18, 2019

Remembering Bruce Laingen, Minnesota Native and Accomplished Diplomat

Humphrey School recognized Laingen, held in Iran hostage crisis, with honorary doctorate

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Bruce Laingen speaks at a White House ceremony for freed American hostages held in Iran as President Reagan listens
Bruce Laingen speaks at a White House ceremony for freed American hostages held in Iran as President Reagan listens. Jan. 27, 1981 (Photo: National Archives)

Bruce Laingen, ambassador and career diplomat who died this week at age 96, is being remembered for his lifelong commitment to public service and diplomacy. Laingen, a Minnesota native, is probably best known as the top American diplomat in Iran from 1979 to 1981, when he and 51 other Americans were held as hostages for 444 days. They were released on January 20, 1981.  

“Throughout his life, Ambassador Laingen exemplified the very best of public service and patriotism,” said Humphrey School Dean Laura Bloomberg. “While many know of him most for the time he spent in captivity during the Iran hostage crisis, his enduring legacy will be so much broader than that. He was a small-town guy from Minnesota who became a respected diplomatic leader in the US and around the globe.” 

Raised on a farm near tiny Odin, Minnesota, Laingen earned a master's degree in international affairs from the University of Minnesota in 1949. He spent 38 years in the Foreign Service at posts in Europe and the Middle East, and served as ambassador to Malta from 1977 to 1979. He received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in 2005.

Brian Atwood, who was dean of the Humphrey School when Laingen received his honorary doctorate, said the recognition was in honor of Laingen’s “superb public service” as a Minnesotan who rose to the top of the US Foreign Service. Atwood said even after the hostage crisis was over, Laingen never wavered in his belief that the US and Iran could repair their fractured relationship. 

“He never gave up on diplomacy, and believed until the end that the United States and Iran could find a way to communicate, even despite the many issues on which they could not agree,” Atwood said. “The Humphrey School's decision to honor Ambassador Laingen was made not only to pay tribute to a wonderful diplomat and human being; it also served to show our students how a dedicated individual can make a real difference.” 

After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1987, Laingen held a variety of government- and education-related positions, including a 15-year tenure as president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

We asked Laingen’s son Chip, a retired US Navy commander and Humphrey School alumnus (MA ‘93), to tell us more about his father’s commitment to public service and diplomacy.   

Why was your father drawn to diplomacy? 
He always believed that people had more in common in human terms, than they had differences in cultural ones, no matter what part of the world they came from.  I think that he had a sense of calm, grace, patience, and optimism that came from growing up on a farm.  He felt that he could bring those qualities to bear as a diplomat, by truly listening to people, developing unhurried dialogues and relationships, and immersing himself in new cultures.

What was his philosophy around the importance of public service?
He felt that there is a civic obligation on everyone’s part to serve this nation in some way. Advancing the cause of public service was a lifelong pursuit that he did through personal example at a local level (in his church, and by creating a neighborhood civic organization in Bethesda, for example), and through serving organizations such as the Presidential Classroom, and the National Commission on the Public Service. In that service, he exemplified humility, servant leadership, and optimism – values that I think came naturally to him. And yet he was actively aware of them in a sense, and hoped that his example would be enough to inspire others to public service. In my view, he led many to do just that, his own sons included.

Although your family lived in Maryland, he remained strongly connected to Minnesota. 
My Dad came from a strong, proud, and straightforward family and community that reinforced humility, hard work and service – and always found ways to be optimistic in tough times. I remain convinced that his upbringing, and the values that came with it, were the reasons why he was a great man who influenced so many to serve selflessly. His academic degrees, training, experience in war and in tough diplomatic situations all contributed, of course. But his Minnesota roots defined him. He was both enormously grateful and proud of that, and was always drawn back to that in tough times. On the farm he could return to the same peace, order, and grace that he experienced in childhood, and be recharged by it.

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Bruce Laingen is also survived by his wife Penne, two other sons, and a sister. Read more about his life and legacy in the Star Tribune

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