TORONTO – John Sheardown, a former Canadian diplomat who sheltered fugitive American Embassy staffers at his Tehran home at great personal risk during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, has died. He was 88.
His wife, Zena, said Saturday that Sheardown passed away in an Ottawa, Ontario, hospital on Dec. 30. She said he had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease for the past four years but also suffered from other ailments.
Sheardown, the First Secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran at the time of the Islamic Revolution, played a key role in the events depicted in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-contender film “Argo,” although he was not portrayed in the film.
Almost a week after militant Iranian radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in retaliation for U.S. support for the recently deposed shah, the Canadian diplomat received a call from one of the six Americans who had managed to evade capture. American consular officer Robert Anders was calling his friend Sheardown for help.
“ ‘What took you so long?’ ” was Sheardown’s reply, said his wife.
After that phone call, the Sheardowns agreed without hesitation to shelter four of the six Americans in secrecy in their 20-room house in Tehran. The Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, housed the other two Americans.
“It would have been selfish for us not to do so,” Zena Sheardown told the Associated Press from her current home in Ottawa. “There weren’t many places to hide in Iran, we had the room, they needed our help and it was just not in John’s nature to refuse help to anyone.”
For 79 days, the pair lived a low-profile life in tumultuous Tehran, facilitating a household that was comfortable and welcoming for the Americans, while helicopters streamed overhead, everyone’s nerves calmed only by boisterous dinners together and heartfelt hospitality.
“We have a lot of fond memories. We spent American Thanksgiving together, New Year’s Eve together. Every night we would all sit around for dinner together. There was a lot of humor and laughter. It was a nice time to have to spend together,” she said. “We tried to be protective, but we also went out of our way to make them feel as if they weren’t imposing on us.”
She said her husband became the father figure of the household, whom everyone would turn to for advice when they went through moments of fear.
While Sheardown might be best known for his role in what became known as the “Canadian Caper,” he was noticeably absent from “Argo,” which told the story of how the CIA used a fake Hollywood film crew to rescue the six U.S. Embassy staffers sheltered by the Canadians. Affleck has apologized for leaving Sheardown out of the film, which he said was the result of time constraints and plot developments.