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Penelope Laingen, 89, Dies; Her Yellow Ribbon Rallied Americans


While Mrs. Laingen, who was known as Penne, never claimed to be the leader of the hostage families, she was held up as their spokeswoman by the news media, a role she filled with the sort of practiced grace that comes from years hosting diplomats as her husband’s unofficial social secretary. She edited her group’s monthly newsletter, met frequently with the Carters and became a regular voice in newspaper coverage.

In December 1980, she was hoisted 60 feet in the air atop a crane in order to place a star on the national Christmas tree — decorated with 52 yellow ribbons — on the Ellipse in Washington. She then had to wait in the bracing winter wind as photographers went up on another crane, one by one, to take her picture.

“I don’t even like to go up in airplanes,” she told the press.

The hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, the day of Mr. Reagan’s inauguration. Word that their plane had departed Tehran came during that ceremony outside the Capitol, where Mrs. Laingen watched from a reserved seat.

A few days later, Mr. Laingen arrived at their home in Bethesda, greeted by hundreds of onlookers. As a junior high jazz band played “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” he tore the now-tattered sash off the oak tree.

The Laingens put a ribbon back up during the 1980s Beirut hostage crisis, and again during the 1991 Gulf War, in which two of their sons served. Later that year they donated the original ribbon to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

“I am pleased to present to your attic from my attic the mother of all ribbons,” Mr. Laingen said.

They sold the house in 2013, but when they learned that the buyers were going to level the lot, they added a stipulation: The oak tree stays. It remains there, with a small ceramic yellow ribbon attached to its trunk.

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