MANKATO — Mankato State University made national news days after the Iran hostage crisis began 40 years ago when 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage as Iranian college students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
MSU, along with the University of Minnesota, had a sizable Iranian student population in the mid- to late-1970s and tensions grew on the Mankato campus in the days following the Nov. 4 embassy takeover, with student leaders condemning Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Margaret Preska, just starting her tenure as president of MSU, was trying to prevent demonstrations against Iran or tensions with Iranian students here, fearing such actions could endanger the hostages.
But MSU was suddenly propelled into national prominence after a spectacular story about five MSU students — four Iranians and one Sudanese — being arrested for plotting to kidnap Gov. Al Quie.
The arrests, on Nov. 9, 1979, occurred during a reception for international students from several colleges at the governor’s mansion.
"I remember it very well," Preska said this week.
While the tip leading to the arrest turned out to be bogus, the incident had profound effects. The wife of one of the men arrested was soon to give birth and went to the Mankato hospital. Preska stayed with the woman at the hospital. "She was so upset and she had a miscarriage," Preska said.
St. Paul police said they'd received a tip “that there might be an attempt to kidnap the governor” and that a car tied to the suspects was spotted near the governor's mansion on Summit Avenue.
Three of the students were arrested inside the mansion and two in the car.
The governor and his wife had been told of the threat and were kept in other parts of the home.
The men were booked into jail on charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, conspiracy to commit assault. Guns were found in the trunk of the car.
Preska said the students were going hunting that weekend and had their hunting guns locked in their trunk.
After the arrests, Quie told reporters he hoped reaction to the event would be calm. “Let's not panic,” he said when asked if the students should be deported.
“If we lost our head, I think it would hurt Americans in Iran.”
But the case that made national headlines quickly unraveled, according to a report in The New York Times.
"Questions soon emerged about the reliability of the tipster who revealed the alleged plot. Within a few days, police released all five suspects from custody."
Later, many observers said the arrests, based on unreliable information, were likely fueled by the fear triggered by the hostage crisis in Iran.
Following announcement of the arrests, Preska urged students and the community to not react with public protests or other actions that could put the American hostages in jeopardy.
"We are to respond, to the extent our individual consciences allow, to the request of President (Jimmy) Carter and Gov. Quie and family members of the hostages, that each of us do all that is possible to protect their lives," Preska said at a news conference.
Preska said rumors and anger were rampant on campus after the hostage crisis and arrests, with some students bringing baseball bats to campus because of perceived danger. Calm soon returned as Preska and others relayed to the campus and community that the arrests were based on bad information.
Preska said there was a large contingent of Iranian students on campus because the first group of students from Iran who arrived on campus found such a welcoming atmosphere.
"Word spread from the first few who came to others that it was so loving and positive here," Preska said. "The true credit goes to the community."
Preska now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. Her daughter, Ellen, who is married to Mankato's former Public Safety Director Glenn Gabriel, lives nearby.
The hostage crisis, which lasted for 444 days before all the hostages were released safely, also had another prominent southern Minnesota connection.
Bruce Laingen, of the small town of Odin in Watonwan County, was the top U.S. diplomat in Iran and one of those taken hostage. Laingen died earlier this year at age 96.