American journalism professor Alann Steen had told friends he went to Lebanon to seek adventure. But after nearly four years of watching gun battles and sleeping with a pistol and an automatic weapon nearby, he recently said he was thinking of returning to California.
Steen, 48, often wrote to former colleagues at Humboldt State University, in Arcata, telling them about life in Beirut and describing in vivid detail the battles that erupted near his apartment in West Beirut.
"I've been confined to the campus since September," he wrote in a letter mailed shortly before Thanksgiving. "I hope to sneak down to the American University for Thanksgiving at the home of Jean Sutherland," wife of hostage Thomas Sutherland. "If anything, I'll get a count of how many 'free' Americans remain in West Beirut."
Steen, who taught at Beirut University College, was one of four people, at least three of them Americans, who were abducted from the campus Saturday.
A native of Boston, Steen moved with his family to Los Angeles shortly after World War II, said his half-sister, Jane Kramer. His father, Alfred, now dead, was a reporter for various film publications.
After a stint as a Marine in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, Steen moved to Humboldt. He earned a journalism degree in 1969 and became editor of the Arcata Union, a weekly newspaper. He also helped launch a small magazine, Pacifica, which failed. In the mid-1970s, he became a part-time journalism professor at Humboldt State. When he failed to get a permanent position at Humboldt, he moved on to Chico State. After several years there, he moved to Beirut.
"Numerous people had tried to encourage him to leave and he kept saying, 'One more year, one more year,' " said Marilee Hadley, former owner of the Arcata Union. "He said that in the last couple of years he was enjoying the protection of his students, who helped him keep a low profile."
Mark Larson, a professor at Humboldt State, said that Steen had written in the last two years that he wanted to return to a teaching position at Humboldt, but there were no positions available.
Larson and other friends said Steen was also inspired to stay on in Beirut because he was dedicated to his students.
Steen told Lee Reinhartsen that "the reason he stayed was that his students walked through two war zones to get to his classes and he was damned if he was going to leave them."
"I think he felt a sense of mission," said Howard Seemann, another friend. "He wanted to show his students the American way of journalism."
Seemann described the tall and husky Steen as "a hell of a nice guy, not the ugly American but the beautiful American."
Last July, Steen married another faculty member at Beirut University College. It was his third marriage. He has two children by a former marriage.
In his last note to Seemann, he wrote that "the shells seem to be landing closer than usual."
"He often would describe how irrational the fighting was over there," Seemann said. "He wrote that the people who got shot were often not fighting but just seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."