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Peggy Say dies at 74; fought to free brother Terry Anderson held hostage in Lebanon

As Terry Anderson bounded down the helicopter steps onto the red carpet at an Air Force base in Germany, a free man after nearly seven years in captivity, his sister could not contain her joy.

After fighting to gain his release from kidnappers in Lebanon, Peggy Say ran across the tarmac and flew into her brother’s arms. It was, it seemed, a storybook ending to the saga of the 1985 kidnapping of the former Batavia resident and Associated Press reporter that attracted worldwide attention.

Say, who tirelessly advocated, pushed, cajoled and pleaded for Anderson’s release, died Wednesday, the Associated Press reports. She was 74.

Anderson was kidnapped from a street in Beirut and held in Lebanon from 1985 to 1991. During those years, Say led a tireless campaign to free her brother. She was a fixture in newspaper articles and on television as she used every means she could imagine to keep his cause alive and fight for his freedom.

“She was just one of those rare individuals, a common hardworking Main Street American woman who was thrust into, in essence, in the national spotlight,” said Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, R-Batavia.

Hawley went to high school with Anderson and was a Genesee County legislator when Anderson was being held. He wrote President Ronald Reagan, urging the president to do what he could to free him.

Say and her husband, David, moved back to Batavia shortly after the kidnapping, and Hawley accompanied her on a trip to Washington, D.C., where she met everyone from senators to Jesse Jackson.

“She was like a bulldog, she was nonstop,” Hawley said. “It became her life. She just kept at it.”

Anderson told the Associated Press that his sister died Wednesday of a lung disease. She was living in Cooke-ville, Tenn. Her husband died in 2012.

At his first detailed news conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, after his release, Anderson pumped his fist triumphantly. But he quickly lost composure, saying he had been “just stunned” by the coverage devoted to his release.

“I’m very, very happy . . .,” he said.

Then he broke down and, weeping, buried his head on Say’s shoulder.

His sister “just startled me with her ability, forcefulness, dedication and intelligence,” Anderson said.

Former Buffalo News reporter Tom Buckham covered Anderson’s kidnapping and Say’s efforts through the years, reporting from Germany, where Anderson was taken after his release Dec. 4, 1991.

“I really admired her tenacity in trying to win his release,” Buckham said. “I thought she was a pretty remarkable figure.”

He also recalled the former journalist’s homecoming in Batavia, in 1992. Anderson and Say were awarded keys to the city.

“She rallied us. She never let us forget,” former Batavia City Council President Paul Weis said of Say’s persistent efforts to win her brother’s release.

Eventually, Say wrote a book about her efforts called “Forgotten.”

Say had knocked on the doors of politicians and world leaders – including the pope – in her quest to keep Anderson’s cause in the limelight. She came under some fire for her activities, and some questioned whether they were counterproductive, prolonging his captivity. When he was released, Anderson had been held longer than any of the other foreign captives.

It was during Anderson’s captivity that the Iran-Contra scandal occurred, when members of the Reagan administration tried to secure arms to sell to Iran, to seek the hostages’ release.

Anderson said Say’s efforts helped bolster his morale while he was held.

In a visit to the University at Buffalo 10 months after his release, Anderson said he was aware of Say’s work to publicize the plight of the hostages. The hostages sometimes were given radios and newspapers, he said.

“The first time I heard Peg’s voice on Armed Forces Radio, I cried,” he said.

Anderson returned to Batavia in 2011 as part of the city’s inaugural Celebration of Peace dinner, and spoke kindly of Say.

“I admire my big sister a lot,” Anderson said.

After Anderson’s release, Say began helping victims of domestic violence.

“The final healing takes place when you’re able to take that very ugly experience and turn it around to help somebody else,” she told People magazine in 1994.

Anderson told the magazine he was not surprised by her newest job.

“She’s very strong and determined, and she doesn’t do it halfway,” he said. “She’s never been ordinary.”

Say traveled from Washington, D.C., to Damascus, Syria. Among the leaders she met with were President Reagan and Vice President George Bush, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the general-secretary of the United Nations and Yasser Arafat.

She moved from Batavia to Kentucky during the hostage crisis, eventually settling in Tennessee.

“No human being, no individual, knows what they have inside them when something of this magnitude happens,” Hawley said. “In her case, it came out of nowhere,” Hawley said. “She was not intimidated, she was not at all overcome with the national figures who she was meeting with.”

email: bobrien@buffnews.com