Penne Laingen didn't know she would start a national movement when she tied a yellow ribbon around the white oak in her front yard in Bethesda, Md. It was November 1979, and her husband, L. Bruce Laingen, was the highest-ranking official among the 52 people held hostage in Iran after student militants overran the U.S. Embassy.
The idea, she told the Washington Post, came to her suddenly, inspired by Tony Orlando & Dawn's 1973 hit song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," about a prison inmate who asks his darling to drape a yellow sash around a tree so that when he comes home, he'll know she still loves him.
"One of these days, Bruce is going to untie that yellow ribbon," she said. "It's going to be there until he does."
The Iran hostage crisis lasted 444 days. It captivated Americans outraged at the Iranians, unsure of their leaders and looking for something, anything, to rally around.
Laingen gave it to them. Within weeks, yellow ribbons were everywhere. An 800-foot sash encircled the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. Girl Scouts wore them. President Jimmy Carter invited her to tie a ribbon around a Georgia maple on the White House grounds.
Penelope Laingen died April 3 at the home of her son James in Marshall, Va. She was 89 and had breast cancer.
Yellow ribbons were not the only thing Laingen contributed during the hostage crisis. After decades spent following her husband from post to post, she found a new purpose in organizing. In March 1980, she and a few other "hostage wives" founded the Family Liaison Action Group, to both support one another and put pressure on the State Department, which many felt was not doing enough to free their loved ones.
While Laingen never claimed to be the leader of the 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 of hosting diplomats as her husband's unofficial social secretary. In December 1980, she — atop a crane — was hoisted 60 feet in the air to place a star on the National Christmas Tree, which was decorated with 52 yellow ribbons, on the Ellipse in Washington.
The hostages were released Jan. 20, 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration. Word that their plane had departed Tehran came during that ceremony outside the Capitol, where Penne Laingen watched from a reserved seat.
A few days later, L. Bruce Laingen, a Minnesota native, arrived at their Bethesda home. As a junior high jazz band played "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," he tore the now-tattered sash off the oak tree.
In 1991, the Laingens 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," L. Bruce Laingen said.
The couple 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.
Penelope Lippitt Babcock was born Dec. 1, 1931, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Laingen lived most of his adult life in Bethesda but grew up in Odin, Minn. He graduated from St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota with a master's in international relations. He died in 2019 at 96.