By Heather Mullinix
In September 1979, Joe Stafford was sent to Tehran, Iran, for his first posting with the U.S. Foreign Service along with his wife, Kathleen, and three other new junior diplomatic officers.
"It was one of the first years that the State Department allowed spouses to take the consulate course so they could work in the visa section of the embassy," said the former Kathleen Franks, a 1969 Cumberland County High School graduate. "They planned to let other spouses go in October and the idea was they were letting us go a little bit earlier."
Just two months later, Kathleen and Joe would be among six American diplomats seeking shelter with Canadian diplomats as the Iranian government collapsed and 52 Americans were held hostage by revolutionary students and militants across the city at the breeched U.S. embassy.
A Love of Art, Travel
Kathleen moved to Cumberland County with her family when she was in the sixth grade. For a family that had moved often with her Air Force father, Crossville offered a place to put down roots and make lasting memories.
The first of those was Paul Crabtree's production of Perils of Pinocchio in 1963.
"When we first arrived, we went to school every day at the middle school and it was a little bit dreary," she said. "Then Paul Crabtree came and put on a play and he brought lights and costumes. We sang songs and ran up and down the aisles. We all thought it was brilliant you could have spotlights."
Kathleen continued to take part in Playhouse productions throughout her high school years, performing in Tennessee, USA in the summers and watching people make the beautiful scenery for the shows. She also was active at CCHS, serving as junior class president and editor of the Jet Stream, a literary magazine featuring student short stories and poetry with illustrations. The magazine received recognition by a New York publication for its use of graphics.
She also studied art under Joe Ed Hodges and math with Velma Buck, both icons of education in Cumberland County, she said. Those two teachers impacted her later decision to study art and math in college, first at George Peabody College in Nashville and then for two years at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
At UT, she met Joe, who was studying Spanish and political science.
"Studying together, I think we just fell in love," she said. A year and a half later, they were married and he finished his undergraduate degree and one year of a master's degree in political science. They moved to Birmingham, AL, so that Kathleen could complete her degree while Joe went to work. Alabama-Birmingham had just started its art program when she arrived, and many of her art classes were taken at a sister university. There she was introduced to printmaking using cardboard plates instead of metal. Her senior thesis used black and white photographs of movies stars because the clothing provided a sense of texture to the photographs. She added more texture with fabric and glue.
She continued her art education at the Scuola Libera del Nudo in Rome and Palermo while Joe worked for an import-export company there. After a year in Rome, the couple returned to the United States to Florida so that Joe could continue his education working toward a doctorate in Latin America Studies because he had planned to teach at the university level.
"After a while, he started thinking he didn't want to be a professor. He loved the idea of traveling and working overseas," Kathleen said.
He took a test to join the U.S. Foreign Service and passed. He was given 10 days to get to Washington, DC, and start the 10-week basic program to learn about the service and the duties of junior officers. After that, the new officers bid on where they wanted to be placed. Joe's list included Khartoum, Sudan, and Tehran, Iran.
Joe, Mark Lijek, Richard Queen and Don Cook were all sent to Tehran.
A Country in Turmoil
Tehran was becoming more and more dangerous. In February 1979, the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a revolution and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from France, where he had been exiled for 15 years.
The United States had been allied with and supported the Shah for several decades and after he was overthrown, the U.S. granted the aging and ill Shah admittance to the country. Khomeini incited the revolutionary militants, saying the U.S. was plotting to sabotage the revolution, though later studies found there were no such plots by the United States.
When the new diplomats arrived, Kathleen said people were already protesting and students had already taken over the U.S. Embassy for a brief time in February, staging a short-lived sit-in. Shots were fired in that episode, but the provisional government arrived and disbursed the crowd. The embassy had new security measures installed, including bullet-proof glass.
"When we got off the plane, the revolutionary guard said, 'Go back where you came from,'" Kathleen recalled. "You don't get that kind of welcome in other countries."
There were sometimes unfriendly or odd looks from people as the women went about their shopping in the city, but that wasn't the case everywhere.
The Staffords and the Lijeks explored the many historic sites in the country, including a weekend holiday to the Black Sea. In November, the weekend before the embassy take-over, the two couples enjoyed a trip to Esfahan. As they were driving back, the car almost broke down in Qom.
"If we had broke down and not made it back to Tehran that night, I would not have turned in my passport," Kathleen said.
That would have meant they would not have been at the embassy during the takeover and would have had passports to allow them to leave the country.
But they made it back and the next morning, Kathleen used the down-time while the embassy was closed to go to the main building and turn in her passport and complete paperwork to get her diplomatic identification.
"The lady was very nervous and asked why I had come to work that day, the Day of Martyrs. I told her I always come to work," Kathleen said.
She crossed the 22-acre compound from the main building back to the consular building where she worked with Joe, the Lijeks and Robert Anders, and told Joe he needed to go turn in his passport.
"Luckily he didn't listen to me or he would have been there," she said.
Several hundred protestors were outside the walls of the embassy that morning, chanting and holding signs. A female student was given a pair of bolt cutters that were concealed under her robes. The students stormed the embassy grounds and took more than 60 U.S. Embassy staffers prisoner.
In the consular office, the staff waited for two or three hours, expecting the police to show up and disburse the crowd. The Iranians working in the office became increasingly nervous and hid their embassy identification cards behind file cabinets and left. They felt safe in the building thanks to the bullet-proof glass, Kathleen said, but when someone thought they smelled smoke on the roof, the decision was made to leave.
Luckily, the building was the only one in the compound with direct access to the street outside the walls of the embassy. About a dozen people left the building, going in different directions. With the Staffords were the Lijeks and Robert Anders. A second group went another way and were captured.
"We were so lucky," Kathleen said. "It was raining and it hadn't rained in a long time, so that distracted people. Also, Cora and I both had black hair, and maybe they wouldn't notice us."
Robert was a great help, as well. Having been in the country a few months longer, he had made many friends and knew people they could call for help.
The group went to Robert's house first and he called the British embassy where the phone was answered by a lone employee, scared and unable to help.
Robert had a radio that picked up radio transmissions from inside the embassy.
"They'd gotten into the vault where the classified information was kept," Kathleen said. "We knew they'd taken over every area. We just heard Farsi after that."
They called Kay Cope in the American Cultural Center, which had not been taken over because many didn't consider it to be part of the embassy. She asked the group to come over and keep the telephone line to Washington open while she and another staffer could get some much-needed rest.
Though Kathleen said they had little information to share, people in Washington were also on the line with the foreign ministry in Tehran, where Bruce Laingon, ambassador to Iran, was at along with his second-in-comman, Vick Thompson. With Thompson was his cook from Thailand, Sam.
This was another bit of luck for the displaced diplomats. Sam was housekeeper for four other people who were now hostages and he had keys to all of those homes.
Even better, conversations could be held in Thai without anyone listening in being able to decipher what was being said. The Staffords and Lijeks went to their homes and gathered some clothes and money and met with Sam, who would take them to a house and then go get provisions.
Before leaving the cultural center that night, Kathleen called her mother in Crossville to let her know she was fine and would call in a few days.
"That was the last she heard from me for months," Kathleen said.
On the Run
For the six days, the group would go from house to house, keeping lights off and being as quiet as possible to avoid detection.
Sam was afraid some of the non-official police roaming the streets might realize someone was in the house and get the group to leave and they would move to yet another captured American's home.
"It got to be a habit, whenever we had to leave, our clothes were in the washing machine," Kathleen said.
Soon, the group was running low on clothes and money and they realized they needed a different plan.
"We called the British and they said we could stay at their compound," Kathleen said. "We were relieved. But their residential compound was attacked and they said it wasn't safe for us there, that we should go back."
While the group continued to move from place to place, the political situation in Iran was also changing. The local government followed the secular government in resigning and no one was in charge.
Robert called John Sheardown, an old friend and his counterpart at the Canadian embassy.
"He said, 'We've been worried about you. Why didn't you call sooner?'" Kathleen said. The British sent a car to help get the American's to Sheardown's home. Meeting them there was Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor.
"He was equally gracious and said they were happy to hide us," Kathleen said. She and Joe went to stay with Taylor and his wife at their home and the others remained with the Sheardowns. They were later joined by Lee Schatz from the U.S. Agriculture Department.
That began 80 days in hiding. The group was reunited only twice prior to their departure, at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Coming back from the Sheardowns' at Christmas, drivers from different embassies got lost, frightening Kathleen.
"We passed roadblocks and there were people with rifles. We could have gotten picked up," she said. "I said I was not leaving again."
While Joe had his passport, the only identification Kathleen had was an embassy identification card. They could not go to the airport to leave because she didn't have a passport. And though they were posing as friends of the ambassador, they didn't have any papers that would identify them as Canadians.
"The housekeepers figured out who we were after we didn't go anywhere and we hid when people came over," Kathleen said.
The house guests, as they were called in communications with the United States, were totally dependent on their hosts for food, shelter and clothing. Kathleen said she, Joe and Schatz spent their days reading.
They didn't know Taylor was communicating with the United States, that the Central Intelligence Agency was working on a plan to get them home, or that Taylor was providing reconnaissance of the U.S. Embassy in the event the U.S. attempted a rescue.
As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, the group knew their situation was becoming more and more dangerous. Should the hostages be released, they could not just show up at the airport because it had been too long a lapse in time. They also knew their presence endangered their hosts.
There was also the danger of the Iranians learning six Americans were unaccounted for at the embassy after the students gained control of personnel records.
Mark wrote a letter to Washington he gave to Taylor to deliver asking them to please get the house guests out of Iran because of the danger they were exposing the Canadian diplomats to.
"It's a terrible feeling," Kathleen said. "We were conscious of it the whole time. But he [Taylor] never sent that letter because he knew they were working on something."
A Daring Plan
Tony Mendez, an expert in disguise and exfiltration with the CIA, arrived with options for cover stories and getting the six Americans out of Iran and back home. They could leave disguised as teachers, business people or a film crew scouting locations for a movie named Argo. The movie idea included a backstory with magazine article, business cards and an office in Hollywood that was staffed in case someone called to check up on the story.
"To me, it just fit much better," Kathleen said of the Argo plan. "I was a painter and a graphic artist and was comfortable with my role if they asked me questions. I had no answer if I had been interrogated for the other fake identities."
Cora, with a background in writing, would be the screenwriter, and others would take on the roles of producer, director and others on a crew.
Joe questioned the plan, Kathleen said.
"He was the only one watching television and reading the paper. He knew just how bad it was on the street and how people were being punished just for having American friends," Kathleen said. "It was no longer just students. The whole government had joined."
Leaving the country under assumed identities was also a crime.
"It's different if you're just hiding," she said. "If you leave with false documents and are caught, you can't claim innocence because you're not innocent."
But there was no option to stay in hiding. It was becoming more and more obvious the six Americans needed to get out of the country. Canadians were already starting to leave the country when the group was reunited at John Sheardown's home.
"They had regular shifts of Canadians leaving the country to watch what the procedures were and to get customs used to Canadians coming and going," Kathleen said.
Another worry was there were starting to be leaks back home of Americans from the embassy hiding in Iran. In reality, Kathleen said there were several journalists who knew about them but didn't break the story until they were safe, though they were mentioned in a CBS broadcast.
"When the CIA came, there was no question. We were leaving."
As they were being coached on their new identities, a mistake was found on the visas, which showed the wrong date. New visa stamps with dates based on the Iranian calendar were quickly inserted.
As the group left for the airport, they were nervous and tense.
Those who have seen the movie will find the events were changed to dramatize the situation. Kathleen said she certainly understood.
"The movie did a great job of building suspense," she said. "Cora and I talked after we had both seen it and we agreed maybe they had to do that because you can't show the tension in someone's head."
In actuality, only Schatz was stopped briefly by customs.
Kathleen had prepared for the bit of espionage during hiding by reading John le Carré novels.
"I learned that if you act like you know what you're doing, others think you know what you're doing," she said. "I was determined to have a calm demeanor and make sure I was not acting nervous. I think that's what we were all concentrating on."
The departure was also planned for the early morning hours when it was still dark and the staff was tired at the end of their shifts.
There was a hiccup in the plan when the plane was delayed. The group had tickets for several airlines and could have switched to different flights, but when they learned it was a brief delay, the decided to stay with the original plan.
"We thought it might look suspicious to have another set of tickets," Kathleen said.
As the plane left Iranian airspace and headed towards Switzerland, the group felt a huge sense of relief.
"When I watched the movie, I felt it again," Kathleen said. "It was so fantastic to be out of there. We weren't going to get picked up and we weren't putting others in danger."
When they got to Switzerland, someone was waiting with their passports so that they could enter Switzerland legally.
The forged passports that got them out of Iran were actually the result of unprecedented international cooperation and an Order in Council by the Canadian government, which had not happened since World War II.
"Canada made a huge concession to issue those forged documents," Kathleen said. "Could that happen today? Could people keep that kind of secret?"
When the group returned home, they were met at Andrews Air Force Base by their families. Kathleen had been determined she would call her mother, who had been getting conflicting information when she called the foreign service's crisis desk, depending on who knew the six were still safe when she called.
The group was told they were going to meet the Secretary of State, a huge thrill for these junior officers of the foreign service. However, he told them they were going to the White House. There, they met President Jimmy Carter.
"We had no clothes with us," Kathleen said. "When we got to Andrews, I grabbed the only dress in my size. I didn't get to do my hair. I looked like Morticia," she laughed.
Then it was back to Tennessee. Lamarr Alexander, then governor, welcomed Kathleen and Joe back home at the airport in Knoxville. Friends were there to welcome them home and then they returned to Crossville for a visit.
"It was so wonderful to be back home," she said. "It was something we had dreamed about."
But they were not to have a quiet return. News of the rescue had already broken and they were hounded by the press.
"We didn't want to be sourpusses, but there was no way to avoid attracting attention," she said.
Over the years, Kathleen has talked little of her and her husband's experience in Tehran. At first, they were told to keep a low profile because the other hostages were still being held in the embassy and they all feared repercussions. The CIA's role was classified until 1997.
"We said 'Thank you, Canada,'" Kathleen said. "The Canadians have been great wherever we have been posted. They are always wonderful neighbors politically and they're just nice people."
All of the six took a much-needed vacation and then got back to work. Mark Lijek stayed with the foreign service for 15 years, and Anders retired from the service, as well.
Joe continued with his work with the foreign service, retiring recently and then being sworn back in and assigned to Khartoum, Sudan.
Through the years, the Staffords have lived in a variety of locations throughout Africa and the Middle East thanks to Joe's knowledge of Arabic.
She returned to the U.S. from Cairo to give birth to her son, David, and then he had a passport issued at one month of age and joined his parents around the world before reaching high school and attending boarding school.
He is now 27 years old.
She also found time to put her art and math degrees to good use, teaching in Mauritania in Africa and later in Virginia when she was separated from her husband due to dangerous conditions. In Mauritania, she not only taught math and art, but language and music and everything else.
She said she learned much from the teaching styles of Velma Buck.
"When I became a teacher, I always thought of her and what a difference she had made. She is a brilliant person in her study of mathematics, but I realized it took so much more to be a good teacher than knowing your subject. It's your attitude towards students and presentation of materials, and that's something I would try to mimic," she said.
Kathleen has been in other dangerous situations and was evacuated from the Ivory Coast in 2002 after a military coup.
"It was pretty dangerous before that because of the crime, but there were different militias fighting and I had to leave," she said.
She returned to Alexandria, VA, and had the opportunity to return to her artwork, taking classes at Torpedo Factory Art Center. When there were no classes, she was welcome to use the printing equipment.
"It was fantastic," she said. She drew on the images from her life abroad, with the rich patterns and textures found in the headwraps and attire of the residents of Africa.
It was a different take on printmaking, which is usually used for textures but not for non-objective subjects.
"It kept me sane while Joe was in Algiers for nine months before I could return."
Most recently, she was evacuated from Sudan following a video that sparked violence across the Middle East and Africa.
"There were violent demonstrations," she said. "The German embassy was burnded down and they attacked the British. They attacked our embassy and did a great deal of damage but did not get over our wall."
She plans to go to Lagos, Nigeria in the spring and join her husband there.
The only nation she recalls not respecting the sanctity of a diplomatic embassy was Iran.
"Over the years, unfortunately, there's turmoil as different regimes change and people try to figure out what kind of government works for them," she said. "We usually feel safe. We go to dangerous places and there are sometimes wars going on. They are not anti-American, necessarily. It's the extreme fundamentalists that have such a loud voice. The rest of the country wants peace and quiet and to raise their children. They're quite tolerant."
While she waits to return, she's kept busy with an exhibition at the Black History Museum in Alexandria, VA.
She's also been giving interviews on her experience in Tehran and will have an interview included on the DVD release of Argo, expected in January.
Back in Africa, she's looking foward to working with the artists she had met before leaving. Those artists struggle in a country under sanctions for crimes against humanity committed by their president, and they have to be careful in their work. Stafford looks forward to introducing them to the diplomatic corps.
"It gives them an audience," she said. "And, I get to see another side of life I would not see as the wife of a diplomat. I get to meet creative people and see different ideas. It's very exciting and very stimulating."
She's also looking forward to meeting up with Wola Soyinka, Nigerian playwright, author, poet and educator who was the first African to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, while he is in New York for a book signing of his most recent work, "Of Africa."
"He is a courageous, candid, energetic 78-year-old who has always stood up to corruption," she said, adding he was put in solitary confinement when he attempted to negotiate an end to the Biafran war. She'll be working with him on organizing an annual Black Heritage Festival in Nigeria where her art work will be featured.
"I am very honored to have the opportunity to work with anything he is associated with," she said. "His life of working for what he believes in, the sacrifices he has made, and the dangers he has exposed himself to time after time, now that deserves recording on film and I am sure, someday, we will see it."
To learn more about Kathleen's artwork, visit kathleenstafford.wordpress.com.