Journalist Freed in Syria Spent Time Living in Upper Valley
This undated image provided by the Curtis Family shows Theo Curtis, a freelance reporter who wrote under the byline Theo Padnos. The U.S. government said on Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014 that Curtis, a U.S citizen who had been held hostage for about two years in Syria, had been released. (AP Photo/Curtis Family)
Bridgewater — A journalist held by an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria for nearly two years before being released on Sunday had Upper Valley ties.
Friends say Theo Padnos , 45, whose family owns a home in Bridgewater, used the name Peter Theo Curtis while in captivity to avoid association with a book he wrote about impersonating a Muslim to better understand radicalization and the divide between Islam and the West, Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen , published in 2011.
Association with that book may have put him in greater danger, speculated Padnos’ friend Chris Mangini, a Woodstock veterinarian.
“We had to be very secretive,” said Mangini. “We’ve been biting our nails this whole time.”
Mangini described seeing video footage of mass graves in Syria and thinking “some American could just end up in a ditch.”
The first news since Padnos’ disappearance in October 2012 came when his cell mate Matthew Schrier, an American photojournalist, escaped last summer, Mangini said. Padnos helped Schrier escape, but could not fit through the window behind him.
That was the “first time we knew he was alive,” said Mangini.
Alarm grew for friends and family when American journalist James Foley was seen killed by Islamic State militants in a video that surfaced earlier this month.
“We are so relieved that Theo is healthy and safe and that he is finally headed home after his ordeal, but we are also deeply saddened by the terrible, unjustified killing last week of his fellow journalist, Jim Foley, at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS,”Padnos’ mother, Nancy Curtis, of Cambridge, Mass., said in a statement Sunday.
Mangini described Padnos’ release by Jabhat al-Nusra into the custody of United Nations representatives in Israel Sunday as “one of the rare feel-good terrorism stories that you’re ever going to get.”
Friends said Padnos, a freelance journalist, is a courageous risk-taker who was drawn to Syria and Yemen out of compassion and interest in the plight of the people there.
He was “looking for a story,” said Mangini. “I think he found it.”
Kirk Kardashian of Woodstock, a writer and Padnos’ friend for more than a decade, said Padnos “loves people,” particularly talking to them, learning who they are and what motivates them.
Padnos attended The Putney School and holds a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts — Amherst. He taught literature at the Woodstock Regional Correctional Facility, which provided fodder for his book My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun , published in 2004.
Padnos, who is fluent in Arabic and French and also speaks German and Russian, is a “naturally curious person,” inspired to tell the “human story” of middle eastern conflicts, said Kardashian.
Sarah Stewart Taylor, a Hartland novelist and a Middlebury College classmate of Padnos who later crossed paths with him in the Upper Valley, recalled how committed he was before his trip to Yemen for Undercover Muslim.
She lauded his “willingness to follow a story” as “brave.”
“I’m very glad that he’s okay and that he made it out,” she said.
Taylor’s husband, politician and businessman Matt Dunne, described Padnos as smart, funny and as a g ood writer who is “intense and passionate.”
Andrew Boxer, a Springfield, Vt., attorney and a cycling friend of Padnos, said anyone willing to travel to Yemen to study radical Islam has to be “a colorful person.”
He recalled shopping at a grocery store in Ludlow, Vt., with Padnos when his friend struck up a conversation in Russian with a girl from the Ukraine who was working the register.
“I’m looking forward to having my riding partner back,” said Boxer. “We always have good conversations on rides.”
When in the Upper Valley, Padnos leads an active lifestyle. He is a cyclist, rock climber and hockey and tennis player.
Padnos’ cousin Viva Hardigg, of Hanover, said she thought her cousin’s “physical fitness and general hardiness served to get him through this really harrowing ordeal.”
Kardashian said exercise is how Padnos “blew off stress” and “cleared his head.”
Kardashian heard the good news of his friend’s release after he returned home from the Vermont Overland Grand Prix race in Woodstock on Sunday, he said.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I can’t wait to see him and give him a big hug.”
Hardigg said the family was “waiting to find out” when Padnos would return home, but was relieved to hear that he appears to be in good health.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.