Resilience | The story of Richard Morefield

Professor honors his father — one of 52 U.S. citizens held hostage by Iranian militants in 1979 — with memorial scholarship in his name

It had been a few weeks, maybe months, after U.S. diplomat Richard Morefield returned home after 444 hellacious days as one of 52 Americans held captive by Iranian militants from November 1979 to January 1981. Morefield was approached by an older couple in a restaurant who thanked him for being “a hero.” That “thank you” has stuck with Kenneth Morefield, who was 14 when his father was taken captive.

“The encounter made my father a little uncomfortable,” he says. “He felt he didn’t do anything ‘heroic’ except survive. But he was gracious, and when the couple reached out to shake his hand, he saw the tattoos on their wrists. Marks from the concentration camps.”

Kenneth Morefield is now 51, an important age for the Campbell English professor, because it’s the same age his father was when his embassy in Tehran was stormed by students who supported the Iranian Revolution, which marked the beginning of what would come to be known as the Iran Hostage Crisis. In thinking back to what those 444 days were like for his father, his mother and his siblings, several high points and low points come to mind for Kenneth. The older he gets, the more those positive moments — outreach or kindness from complete strangers during the whole ordeal — jump to the forefront of his thoughts.

And that fleeting moment with two Holocaust survivors —they, of all people, were impressed with his father’s courage and perseverance — will never be forgotten by the Morefield family.

“I’ve thought about that story a lot,” says Kenneth. “My take from it is this: Suffering isn’t a contest. I think anyone who has that mindset gets locked into a victim mentality. It becomes what defines them. What I think my father wanted us to get from it was this — those who come to grips with their own suffering are the ones who are able to translate their experience into empathy and sympathy for others. It was a powerful moment for my father, for reasons he wasn’t able to articulate for some time.”

Richard Morefield died in 2010 after a lengthy battle with pneumonia. He was 81.

In the spring, Kenneth, the youngest of Richard’s six children, announced through Campbell’s Office of Advancement that he will fund a memorial scholarship in his father’s name to honor his legacy and award students who meet certain criteria and represent that legacy. The Richard Morefield Memorial Scholarship will be made possible by money Kenneth has received from the United States Victims of State-Sponsored Terrorism Fund, established in 2015 to compensate thousands of victims of international acts of state-sponsored terrorism. In April, the U.S. Government announced it had made payments totaling more than $800 million to families, with the money administered by the Justice Department’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (none of the fund is made up of taxpayer money).

“I think it’s important, as a Christian and a representative of a Christian institution, when you get a cash windfall or gift like this, part of your response is giving back to the community in ways that are meaningful,” Kenneth says. “This scholarship represents his values. It helps a cause that was important to him while he was alive.”

‘You can’t hold your breath’

Richard Morefield was sent to Iran because he had experience working calmly in war-torn countries. Iran in the late 1970s was in the midst of a revolution — the Pahlavi Dynasty, supported by the U.S., was eventually replaced by the Islamic Republic, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. After the Embassy siege and the captivity of 52 Americans, an international crisis ensued.

Morefield was held in a cramped cell lit only by small window slits above him for those 444 days. His experience was frightening.

From his obituary in the Washington Post on Oct. 14, 2010: “Following lessons he learned in training, he made no attempt to befriend guards and ate all food offered to him. He spoke of surviving mentally by doing light exercise — push-ups, sit-ups, pacing his cell — and trying to create crossword puzzle games in his head and recall math problems from his childhood. He said the Iranians tried to play with his head by allowing him cards and books, only to take them away without warning.”

Three times he was taken to a basement by his captors, blindfolded and told to kneel before them. Three times, the Iranians would place a pistol to his head and pull the trigger. Three times, the chamber was empty.

Back in San Diego, California — 7,648 miles away — Kenneth had just started high school. His interests included drama and theater … the following year he’d perform in Serra High School’s production of M*A*S*H. That year and 79 days were a roller coaster ride of emotions for the Morefield family — highs on the 12 days they received a letter from dad, and lows such as the day an attempted rescue led to two helicopters colliding near the embassy, killing eight U.S. servicemen.

“I think it was Christmas during that first year when we realized that whatever solution was coming, it was going to be a long-term solution,” Kenneth says. “Our mother wanted us to go back to school, telling us we couldn’t put our lives on hold. It could be three weeks, a month or 10 years. The longer you put your life on hold, the harder it becomes to re-adjust when it ends. You no longer have a sense of routine in life. There was a lot of wisdom in that. You can’t hold your breath for an entire year.”

Dorothea Morefield became somewhat of a national spokesperson for the hostage families — she was the go-to interview on the West Coast when the news outlets had updates. Kenneth says his mother was both intelligent and articulate and most importantly, willing to talk.

The resolve of Richard Morefield and his family was a product of tragedy from three years earlier. In 1976, the Morefields’ oldest child, Rick Jr., a college freshman, was one of four people murdered during an armed hold-up at a Roy Rogers Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. Richard Morefield would later say in a news conference that losing his son “forced me to make the decision that I was going to cope. There was nothing more they could do emotionally to me.”

Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th president on Jan. 20, 1981. The following day, the hostages were released, and Richard Morefield was sent home. While the ordeal ripped some families apart and led to years of psychiatric care for others, the Morefields were able to achieve as much normalcy as they could have hoped for over the next 29 years. 

“My brother Dan once surprised a lot of people by saying Iran was neither the highest nor the lowest points of his life,” Kenneth says. “I think my dad felt that way, too. Yes, there were some scars — physical and psychological — that never healed. A psychologist once told my mom that my father had the profile of a person best equipped to deal with that situation.”

The first was his age: 51. Kenneth’s age today. That number allows Kenneth to better understand his father’s mindset in 1979.  “[Fifty-one] means you’ve lived your life. You’ve had some achievements,” he says. “He was educated. Capable of understanding the big picture. He’d had some professional success, and he’d been through tragedy before.”

A reporter once asked his father if given the choice, knowing what he knew, would he still have gone to Tehran? “Who’d say ‘yes’ to that, right?” Kenneth says. “But my father said something surprising: ‘There’s not enough money in the world to pay me to do it again. But having been through it and survived, I wouldn’t trade it. I wouldn’t give it up.’

“I later asked him what he meant by that, and I processed it as it’s important to look forward. It’s another big lesson I was able to take from all of this.”