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Ken Taylor, Canadian Diplomat at Centre of Iran Hostage Crisis, Dies at 81

Speakers’ Spotlight was honoured to work with Ken Taylor over the past 15 years. We offer our condolences to his family and friends in the wake of his death, yesterday:

It was nearly 40 years ago, but Mark Lijek remembers the day he met Ken Taylor like it was yesterday.

The young U.S. diplomat had spent nearly a week on the run in Tehran before ending up in the den of a house rented by a Canadian counterpart. After a cocktail or two, he finally worked up the courage to ask the question that had been weighing on his mind and as well as those of his five fellow fugitives. Would Canada’s ambassador really agree to hide and harbour all the Americans?

It was only at that point he was told that he had already met the ambassador in question – a young wallflower of a diplomat in his 40s who had been quietly taking in the scene that evening. And Mr. Taylor and his team relayed that they had already secured the Prime Minister’s blessing for a high-risk plan that would become renowned as “the Canadian Caper.”

Mr. Taylor will forever be known as the Canadian face behind that mission. He died Thursday in New York City of colon cancer, at age 81.

“One thing about Ken was that I don’t think he ever doubted what he was doing was right,” Mr. Lijek recalled in an interview with The Globe and Mail, hours after his friend’s death. “There was never any hesitation on Taylor’s part to offer us sanctuary.

“I tend to remember him as he was then – young and with those big glasses and a big smile on his face. Maybe it was the Canadian version of a stiff upper lip. It was a big confidence builder for us.”

People under 40 might best know the Canadian Caper as the basis for Argo, the 2012 Oscar-winning film directed by Ben Affleck. In political circles, Mr. Taylor was frequently recognized for having stuck his neck out in the hope of helping spirit the Americans out of Iran. He received a Congressional Gold Medal and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. On Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper circulated a statement saying that “Ken Taylor represented the very best that Canada’s foreign service has to offer.”

The backdrop to all this was the Islamic Revolution in Iran. On Nov. 4, 1979, a mob of radical university students and supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. embassy and captured it. Dozens of staff were made hostages.

Mr. Taylor did not have a background in international intrigue.

Prior to being appointed ambassador to Iran in the late 1970s, he had mostly been a Canadian trade commissioner who had filled his days with grain deals.

But by the time of the embassy seizure, the storm clouds brewing in Iran had already led him to be part of an effort to repatriate hundreds of Canadian citizens.

The six Americans diplomats had not been so lucky.

They had managed to escape the embassy seizure, but in the days that followed, they were moving from one hiding spot to another in Tehran, at constant risk of being discovered.

Fellow diplomats routed them to a house of a Canadian – John Sheardown, a seasoned foreign-service officer who did most of the talking on the night the Americans first met Mr. Taylor.

But after that evening, Mr. Taylor took two of the Americans into his own home and began working behind the scenes. Cables travelled from Tehran, to Ottawa, to Langley, Va., where Central Intelligence Agency officials began cooking up a far-fetched scheme to get the Americans out of Iran.

In the end, the CIA settled on a plan to send in U.S. operatives posing as Canadian filmmakers with a cover story of wanting to make a movie. Then, they would rendezvous with the hiding American diplomats, hand them Canadian passports and leave together on a commercial flight out of Iran.

During the three months of planning, the six American diplomats stayed hidden at Mr. Taylor’s and Mr. Sheardown’s homes, punctuating long periods of boredom and despair with games of Scrabble and books such as The Raj Quartet.

Mr. Taylor’s taciturn but upbeat persona helped bolster everyone’s spirits. “Every week or 10 days, he would have dinner with us,” Mr. Lijek recalled. He said that the Americans “were getting kind of antsy,” but Mr. Taylor would try to reassure them by asking questions about what kinds of passports they would feel comfortable using on their way home.

“I kind of assumed we would become honorary Canadians,” Mr. Lijek said.

Officials on both sides of the border kept things quiet, being ever fearful of leaks. “The cabinet issued the … passports without a full understanding of the circumstances,” former Conservative immigration minister Ron Atkey recalled.

In an interview, he said, “we took it on the position from [Prime Minister] Joe Clark and [External Affairs Minister] Flora MacDonald – ‘Trust us, it’s super top secret.’”

The operation went off without a hitch. The American diplomats flew home on Jan. 27, 1980, on a Swissair flight.

In recent years, Mr. Taylor was thrust back into the spotlight following Argo. Critics complained the Hollywood film glossed over the Canadian government’s involvement in the rescue of the Americans. A year later, a Canadian-produced documentary, Our Man in Tehran, came out, centring on Mr. Taylor.

In recent years, the former ambassador lived with his wife, Pat, in New York.

He died at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he was being treated for colon cancer

“He was completely lucid through yesterday. In considerable pain, but wouldn’t let anybody know,” his son, Douglas Taylor, said on Thursday.

“He had great joie de vivre,” he added.

“Until the end, it was only about somebody else. How we felt, or how the nurses felt, anybody else that came into contact with him.”

A funeral is to take place in Toronto on October 27.

The Globe and Mail/October, 2015