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Saturday January 5, 2013

A diplomat, a daredevil and a key player in the Canadian Caper

The former Air Force pilot housed the survivors of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Iran, as glorified in the film Argo

By 1979, it was well known in Canadian immigration circles that John Sheardown was the man you wanted in tight situations. The quiet immigration officer accessed hidden reserves of calm and ingenuity when faced with armed guards or unwelcoming foreign officials. Who better for the task of heading up the department's Tehran office on the cusp of a revolution?

Sheardown, who died on Sunday at 88, quickly proved to be the right man for the job. His wife recalls being yanked from their car by revolutionary guards at one particularly hostile checkpoint in Tehran. The armed men refused to accept their passports as proper identification. Recognizing that the guards could not read, Sheardown pulled a much-stamped piece of yellow paper from his wallet and announced in his confident low voice, "Khomeini!"

The men immediately set the couple free. "That was the magic word. We piled back in the car and off we went," said Zena Sheardown. "The paper turned out to be nothing but an expired Jamaican driver's licence my husband had from a previous posting."

Weeks after the checkpoint incident, on Nov. 9, 1979, Canada's foreign corps would encounter one of the thorniest issues in its history. It arrived in the form of a phone call from Bob Anders, a U.S. consular official who had evaded a mass hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy. Luckily for Anders, the person who answered was Sheardown, who, as his wife put it, "could be a bit of a daredevil, someone who would jump first and think about the consequences later."

Anders described his predicament. He and some others had been dodging militants for five days unable to find a decent hideout with British or Swedish diplomats. Could Canada help?

"Why didn't you call sooner?" the Canadian responded.

When Anders explained that as many as five other Americans were also looking for shelter, Sheardown didn't hesitate. "Bring 'em all," he said, never stopping to think what his superiors would say.

It was the start of the Canadian Caper, a three-month concealment of the American house guests, followed by a high-stakes rescue mission recounted in the Hollywood film Argo.

While the movie featured a front-and-centre role for Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, who approved the plan and hid two of the Americans at his residence, John Sheardown had no place in the credits.

"That was a shame, because without him, I don't know what would have happened to us," said Mark Lijek, who, along with his wife, was among the escapees who stayed at the Sheardown home. "If the reception had been more tepid from the Canadians, we would have likely tried to make it on our own for a few more days until we were caught. The way he took our call, it wasn't an invitation, it was more like a command. He had that military bearing all his life."

Born in Sandwich, Ont., (later absorbed by Windsor) on Oct. 11, 1924, John Vernon Sheardown joined the Canadian Air Force at age 18. He flew scores of Lancaster bomb runs in the Second World War. After one run, he barely managed to limp his flack-riddled plane back to England. 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.

"It was pitch black and he crawled down to a pub, beat on the door. The pub owner came down with a shotgun and John explained he was a Canadian airman who was injured and needed a drink," said James Bissett, a friend and former boss of Sheardown in the immigration foreign service. "They propped him up on the pool table and gave him some Scotch. John told me the pub owner then asked him to pay for it."

He stayed in the armed forces after the war, serving in South Korea, before joining Canada's immigration service around 1962. Jumping among posts in London, Glasgow, New Delhi and Los Angeles, he became known for his ever-present pipe and old-fashioned manners.

When his future wife encountered him for the first time in London, she asked a friend who the well-dressed man was. "Why, that's John Sheardown, the kindest man on Earth," the friend replied. "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, his second marriage.

His kindness and resourcefulness never wavered amid the chaos of revolutionary Iran, where the couple was posted just two months before militants seized 52 hostages at the U.S. embassy. They were under constant surveillance from mysterious figures across the street as well as their own gardener, a member of the komiteh revolutionary security force. They proved no match for Sheardown, who was quick with a cigar and a jovial nudge out the door every time the gardener let himself in, and brought garbage to work to conceal the excess waste their house guests were producing. When the home's owner began showing potential buyers around the place, he arranged for the Americans to be whisked away.

His six house-guests never lacked for good food, cigarettes or Ballantine's, Sheardown's Scotch of choice.

"We felt guilty sometimes that we were living in the Four Seasons compared to the hostages downtown," Lijek said. "We had formal dinners every night with wine and everything else. He made sure we had a U.S. Thanksgiving. He even got us presents for Christmas."

Today, the Lijeks keep Canadian lapel pins in the little brass box the Sheardowns gave them that Christmas.

The Sheardowns left Tehran days before CIA operatives swooped in to remove the escapees disguised as a feature-film crew. They went on to postings in Hungary and Sri Lanka before Sheardown retired in 1989. When the Canadian government awarded him the Order of Canada, he refused to accept it until his wife was also recognized, a showdown he eventually won.

Sheardown had Alzheimer's disease, according to his wife.

"I will remain in possession of his ashes," she said when asked if a funeral is being planned. "He wanted us to go together. We've been through so much together. We were always buddies. We always looked out for each other."

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