Canadian diplomat John Sheardown dead at 88

World War II veteran John Sheardown, right, talks World War II veteran John Sheardown, right, talks with former Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor. Sheardown was one of the key Canadian figures in the legendary rescue of Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. He died Dec. 30, 2012. He was 88. Newsday's obituary for John Sheardown
Photo Credit: Handout

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John Sheardown, an unflappable Canadian diplomat in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis who helped shelter six American "house guests" until they were secretly shuttled out of the country, died Dec. 30 at a hospital in Ottawa. He was 88.

He had Alzheimer's disease, said his wife, Zena Sheardown.

In the events that became known as the "Canadian Caper," Sheardown was serving officially as the top immigration official at the embassy in Tehran. Recounting the 1979 ordeal, historian Robert Wright wrote that the portly, ruddy-faced Sheardown "exuded the sort of quiet but unyielding resolve that made him a natural leader in a crisis."

The strife began when an Iranian mob seized the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, and took 52 Americans hostage in retaliation for Western support for the recently deposed shah. As was retold in the Ben Affleck film "Argo" (2012), six Americans managed to evade the hostage takers.

Sheardown became a vital -- but necessarily discreet -- point of contact for the desperate Americans seeking sanctuary.

He figured in a 1981 Canadian television film, "Escape from Iran," and later in books as a loyal and daring supporting player. Ken Taylor, the gregarious ambassador to Iran lauded by Time magazine as the rescue plot's "mastermind and instant hero," was portrayed by Victor Garber in "Argo." Sheardown was not a character in the film.

But as Kathleen Stafford, one of the American "house guests," recalled in an interview Tuesday, Sheardown was "a lifesaver" at a time when she and her colleagues feared for their safety.

Robert Anders, another of the American diplomats seeking haven, knew Sheardown and called him to request official protection. "Why didn't you call sooner?" Sheardown replied.

Five of the six Americans arranged passage to the Sheardown residence in the suburbs north of Tehran and arrived on Nov. 10. Sheardown, who had helped obtain permission from Ottawa, phoned Taylor to say that the "house guests" had arrived. They were soon followed by the sixth American, Henry Lee Schatz, who had been hiding at the Swedish Embassy.

The Taylors took Stafford and her husband, Joseph. The other four -- Anders, Schatz and Mark and Cora Lijek -- stayed with the Sheardowns. On Jan. 28, 1980, the six Americans were spirited out of the country with fake Canadian passports and disguised as members of a Hollywood film crew.

Soon afterward, the Sheardowns also left the country. The remaining American captives from the embassy were held in Iranian custody for almost another year -- until Jan. 21, 1981, after Ronald Reagan's inauguration as president.Sheardown's first marriage, to Kathleen Benson, ended in divorce. In 1975, he married Zena Khan. Besides his wife, of Ottawa, survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Robin Sheardown and John Sheardown Jr.; two sisters; and six grandchildren. A daughter from his first marriage, Jackie Hunter, died in 2007.

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