Peter Kilburn, 60, an infirm man who walked with a cane, will be remembered at the American University of Beirut as a man intent on helping the less fortunate.
Kilburn, a well-traveled bachelor, came to Lebanon 20 years ago to work as a librarian at the American University. His former assistant, Leila Bikhaazi, said he had suffered a stroke, and had trouble seeing and walking because of a heart condition and high blood pressure.
"He was so frail, we never thought he would have survived this long time in captivity," Bikhaazi said of Kilburn, who was reported missing in December, 1984. His body was found yesterday along with two other hostages apparently killed in retaliation for the U.S. attack on Libya.
Kilburn, a native of California, lived on Makhoul Street, once a meeting place of Beirut intellectuals and bohemians. He was fascinated by trains and all kinds of "obscure, ridiculous things," recalled a friend. Kilburn often paid for books needed in the university library out of his own pocket, his assistants said.
"He was disorganized, temperamental at work but soft and kind-hearted," Bikhaazi said. "I don't think he could have harmed a fly. He was too good and too nice. I always told him that few people deserved his generosity, but he never listened."
Kilburn, a well-read and erudite man, often paid for the education of students seeking his assistance or bought books for them when they could not afford them.
"He never turned anybody down. He used to give his last penny to those who needed it and stay without medicine," his longtime friend and confidante Linda Sadaka said. "I feel too sad; I shall say no more."
The summer before he was kidnaped Kilburn took in a family of four or five boys from the southern suburbs offering his home as a base for their education.
"He taught them English, fed them and helped them along," another friend, Leila Freiji, recalled. "And this was not the first time he did something like this. He lived to serve the community around him. He was loved. People took to him. His kindness to the less fortunate put everyone to shame," Freiji added.
Journalists often referred to Kilburn as the "forgotten hostage." Advertisements by his colleagues and friends in local newspapers calling on his captors to provide him with certain medications were ignored.
His close friends, who admired him for his knowledge and erudition, expressed bitterness that he had not been more selective in choosing the people he helped. Kilburn, who was said to have the best collection of Verdi opera records in Beirut, loved to invite colleagues and students to show them slides of his travels. He had a wide circle of friends from all religious groups and called Lebanon his home. He helped others quietly, Freiji said and often spoke of early retirement, but never seriously.
"I am terribly upset. I am beginning to wonder what we are still doing here. No one wants to live in an area where ignorance is taking over, where everyone who is cultured or educated is a target," Freiji commented.