John Sheardown, a Canadian diplomat and international hero who sheltered a group of Americans during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, has died. Sheardown’s wife Zena announced that he died Dec. 30 after four years of battling Alzheimer’s disease and other ailments. He died in an Ottawa hospital at age 88.
On Nov. 4, 1979, in the midst of the Islamic revolution, Iranian radicals overran the American Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. One week later Sheardown received a phone call from Consul Robert Anders, who was leading a group of six Americans who had managed to escape the embassy before it was seized.
“Hell, yes, of course. Count on us,” came the reply from Sheardown.
The Sheardowns sheltered four of the six Americans for 79 days (the other two were taken in by Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor) in their 20-room home in the heart of Tehran.
“It would have been selfish of us not to do so,” Mrs. Sheardown told the Associated Press. “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.”
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The events were recently popularized again in the acclaimed-film “Argo,” starring Ben Affleck, who also directed the movie. Sheardown does not appear in “Argo,” which instead features a character who is a composite of Sheardown and Taylor.
While the movie depicted a tense situation in the home, Zena Sheardown insisted much of that drama was fabricated for Hollywood effect. The Americans eventually took to calling John Sheardown “Big Daddy” because he offered them advice and comfort in times of distress.
“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.”
The Americans spent much of their time playing cards and board games while often drinking to excess, she said. Sheardown helped the group with their cover as a Canadian film crew by explaining how to end sentences with “eh?” and giving them Molson beer key chains.
Before serving as a diplomat Sheardown flew a bomber for the Canadian Air Force during World War II. At one point he crash-landed in England, breaking both legs before crawling to the door of a pub. Sheardown asked for a glass of Scotch while waiting for an ambulance, a request the owner complied with but not without expecting payment.
Sheardown is survived by his wife, two sons, two sisters, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.