Canadian who sheltered Americans in Iran dies

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This Jan. 27, 1981 photo shows John Sheardown in Ottawa, Ontario. Sheardown, a former Canadian diplomat who hid fugitive American Embassy staffers during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, has died. He was 88. AP

TORONTO — John Sheardown, the former First Secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran who sheltered fugitive American 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 Dec. 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 U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 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. 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 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 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.

“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 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.

“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 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.

Born in Sandwich, Ontario, later absorbed by Windsor, on Oct. 11, 1924, John Vernon Sheardown joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at age 18. He flew scores of Lancaster bomber missions in World War II. On one mission, he barely managed to get his flak-riddled plane back to Britain. With the Lancaster losing power, he told his crew to bail out. He tried to wrestle the aircraft under control before opting to leap at the last minute. His chute barely had time to open and he broke both legs upon impact.

“I often thought he had nine lives with the way he lived his life,” his wife said.

He stayed in the Canadian Armed Forces after the war, serving in Korea, before joining Canada’s immigration service around 1962. He was posted in London, Glasgow, New Delhi and Los Angeles, during his extensive 27-year diplomatic career.

“He was a proud, dignified man, proud to serve his country, a dedicated foreign services officer and well-respected by all,” his wife said.

It was that dignified air that caught the eye of his future wife when she first spotted him in the Canadian High Commission in London, England.

“He looked like an English gentleman, he was smoking a pipe, very dapper,” she said.

She asked a friend who that was and her friend replied: “That’s John Sheardown, the kindest man I’ve ever known. If he was down to his last penny and he thought you needed it, he would give it to you.”

The two were married in Los Angeles in 1975. It was his second marriage.

“It was a long love story,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “He lived a wonderful life and we shared many wonderful years together.”

Besides his wife, the former Zena Khan, he is survived by his sons, Robin and John; his sisters, Jean Fitzsimmons and Betty Ann Whitehead; six grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

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  • adamson11

    I saw argo and I thought he’s the one portrayed by victor garber (he played the ambassador ken taylor instead). Yes his character should be played in the film as his role in the Iranian hostage event is dramatic… tsk tsk ben affleck!!!

  • t2jr

    the movie argo portrayed the canadian ambassador as the one who sheltered the six american fugitives.unfortunately, it was falsely presented in the movie. 

  • Touch_Me_, Nuts!

    Now I know of the second home involved in that rescue of the 6. I could imagine the high drama that was then. For all its faults, I still salute “Argo F*** Yourself”. hehehe Good flick!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZWTTKJTI57YO7TZBJC66GA2OLU dennis

    “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.”Zena Sheardown should be thankful and Ben Affleck doesn´t need to apologize about it because it will inflict to the mind of Iranian people that Canada,aside from United States will consider also an enemy of them.There is no prestige on voicing out that incident regarding saving the lives of six Americans or else until now,it will also endanger lives of every Canadian.

    • Touch_Me_, Nuts!

      Wait a minute…. I think I can understand what you’re trying to say. But Hollywood is Hollywood anyway, and I agree there’s nothing to apologize for since the movie was basically about the box office hit, and absolute loyalty to the story comes secondary. As properly mentioned in the movie, Hollywood makes money as a den for liars and for cosmetics. And that’s the nature of the beast but cineaste and still many love its products.  Of course to take the movie into the actual event is another story altogether.

       Being too close to the story, Zena was just expressing her unsolicited emotion of the event and of the movie. We give that to her, and no one can take that away from her. Of course Hollywood has its own version of the story too, barring constraints as Ben Affleck had earlier explained and suggested.  Let’s face it Iranian animosity towards the West and rightly so to Americans will always be there regardless but likewise, many Iranians in their heart of hearts are still resentful of the Revolution. Many here don’t have an idea what it was like in Tehran during those heady days. Of course we all know now that it hasn’t improved much and life among many Iranians gets tougher each day. Of course too many will disagree with me but that’s my take.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZWTTKJTI57YO7TZBJC66GA2OLU dennis

    You have to think it for political reason and not for personal why this things happened as it is in film “Argo”.If you expose the name John Sheardown before,then maybe he will not reach the age of 88.

    • adamson11

      oh boy, this film is made last year only the event is more than two decade ago so nothing is there to protect in term of people involved… mrs sheardown is right to be frustrated as their sacrifices and role in the event were not mentioned… put yourself in their shoes.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZWTTKJTI57YO7TZBJC66GA2OLU dennis

        Do you know how Iranians hate Americans? Do you know how Arab world don´t like Americans? Putting myself into someone´s shoes is easy to accomplish but you have to think twice? Who knows what does Iranians have in their mind that guarantees someone that nothing will happen? This sounds like “Jumping yourself from a Frying pan and joining Americans into the fire”.Hope you got my message.

      • adamson11

        you are politicing matter that doesn’t, the iranian doesn’t hate americans they hate american politics towards them and same goes also to the arabs, how come these people (arabs) comes to america in big numbers and use their product if they hate its people and its country? the jews media are making all of these hatred, this i know…

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZWTTKJTI57YO7TZBJC66GA2OLU dennis

        Let´s make things simple to understand “If the feeling and thinking is mutual then there is no danger for Americans being captured at the boarder without any reason”.

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