x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Canadian who sheltered Americans in Iran dies

Former first secretary at the Canadian embassy in Tehran who sheltered fugitive US embassy staffers at his home during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 has died.

TORONTO // John Sheardown, the former first secretary at the Canadian embassy in Tehran who sheltered fugitive US embassy staffers at his home during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and who had a lengthy career in Canada's foreign service, has died at age 88.

His wife Zena said Sheardown passed away in an Ottawa hospital on December 30 and had been treated for Alzheimer's disease for the past four years but also suffered from other ailments.

Sheardown, a diplomat in Tehran during 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 US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in retaliation for US 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. Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, housed the other two Americans.

"It would have been selfish for us not to do so," Zena Sheardown said from her home in Ottawa, Ontario. "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 humour 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.

"He kind of became our leader and since he was a pipe smoker and had more of a mature nature, he became known as 'Big Daddy,' everyone would wait for Big Daddy to come home," she said chuckling.

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 US Embassy staffers sheltered by the Canadians. Affleck has apologised for leaving Sheardown out of the film, which he said was the result of time constraints and plot developments.

"It was frustrating," said Zena Sheardown. "It would have been nice if the story was told correctly because basically, if the Canadians weren't there to help, who knows what would have happened to those Americans."

In a story posted in October on the Slate magazine website, one of the rescued American diplomats, Mark Lijek, said Sheardown's role was "indispensable."

"Without his enthusiastic welcome we might have tried to survive on our own a few more days. We would have failed," said Mr Lijek.

Sheardown was made a Member of the Order of Canada for his role in the rescue. His wife later also received the award for her role.