Last weekend was split between football, food, and bonding time with my father in celebration of UI Dad’s Weekend and working Ag Days, a celebration hosted by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences that welcomes stakeholders and ag-interested high school students across the state to campus for four days. The time I spent with my father was hands-down the highlight of the weekend, but coming in second was the opportunity I got as a communications intern to meet Lee Schatz.
College of Agricultural and Life Sciences alumnus Lee Schatz was one of the six Americans who took refuge in the Canadian embassy officers’ home after Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Sixty-six others were taken captive for 444 days while Schatz and the five American escapees stayed out of sight. They spent the majority of their time playing Scrabble while waiting for help, so much Scrabble that Schatz claimed to have memorized the backs of several Scrabble pieces.
“You can’t think of what might happen to you if you go international,” Schatz said.
Thanks to American-Canadian cooperation and an outlandish CIA operation involving a Hollywood movie scheme, the six were rescued from Tehran at the head of the Iranian hostage crisis. Their story is depicted in the Ben Affleck film Argo, which the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences showed last Thursday night in honor of Schatz’s return to campus and Ag Days 2015.
The panel following the film featured two hours’ worth of questions and answers between audience members and Schatz, some in relation to the film but most in relation to international agriculture and the specifics of Schatz’s career.
“International is not just foreign anymore. It’s not just out there,” Schatz said, gesturing to the fields surrounding the UI Soil Stewards’ Farm prior to the film Thursday, where I first introduced myself to him. “It’s urban, it’s green spaces. It’s Korea, under plastic.”
Schatz obtained an undergraduate business degree with an emphasis in economics in 1971 and a graduate degree in agricultural economics in 1974 from the University of Idaho. Since his rescue from Tehran, he has worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helped develop a program called e-Afghan Ag that gives agricultural and protocol information to soldiers helping Afghan farmers (““A guy at 2 o’clock in the morning with a shovel on his shoulder walking down a road might not be burying an IED. He has water for his plots for 24 hours, and he has to change the plots at two o’clock in the morning.”), and as a current employee of the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Country and Regional Affairs Office will retire in October with 37 years of international service. The entirety of his career led him to work in over 35 countries and live in three: India, Iraq and Iran.
I am thrilled by the access journalism gives me to meet people like Schatz, who is clearly intelligent, personable, and has a seasoned sort of fire in him born of experience.
Schatz was able to answer questions about what he did and what he does with more comfort than he could my question about how it felt to be him, 36 years ago.
How it felt to be him in 1979, when he wandered the streets of Tehran for two weeks in need of refuge. When CIA Technical Operations Officer Tony Mendez handed him a fake Canadian passport and proposed he take on the identity of a movie crew member in hopes he could successfully smuggle him, and the rest, out of the country. What it felt like going through airport security, sitting in a SwissAir plane that wouldn’t budge due to mechanical problems, and the way it felt when the wheels finally broke from the pavement.
I never got a full answer. And that’s okay.
He talked a little about Tehran, and the risks he knew came with working internationally. He told me about the Scrabble games.
Halfway through, he locked eyes with me, knowing I wanted a more detailed answer. He kind of laughed, like he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it.
He recommended going to the market, wherever country you’re in, and the night ended on that note.
I have a heart for people. I hunger for their stories. I am in love with words, and last weekend I was again reminded that these are the reasons I belong in this profession.