Olivet College alumnus was oldest of hostages held by Iran
Oct 11, 2012
By Molly (Reed) Goaley ‘05
For those who were alive at the time, the disturbing images are unforgettable. It happened on Nov. 4, 1979, a day that started out like any other at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. But unrest was dangerously growing among the anti-American protestors who typically congregated outside the embassy walls.
By the time Americans turned on their television sets that evening, news of the Iran Hostage Crisis was already quickly spreading. More than 500 militant students had stormed the embassy, taking diplomats as hostages. Photos and video of the hostages bound and blindfolded would persist in news coverage for months. To add to the tragedy, a failed rescue attempt would result in a helicopter crash killing eight American servicemen.
Now, with Oscar buzz swarming around actor and director Ben Affleck’s film, “Argo,” which opens in theaters tomorrow, it seems that people can’t stop talking about the crisis, the various rescue missions, and of course, the hostages those who were rescued through the Argo mission, and the others who withstood 444 grueling days of captivity.
The story of “Argo” is a fascinating one, and as Affleck puts it, too absurd not to be real. The movie is based on the plan hatched by real-life former CIA operative Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, to rescue six Americans who had escaped the embassy and were hiding in the home of Canadian diplomats.
Mendez, known as the CIA’s “Master of Disguise,” came up with the idea of transforming the escapees into a Canadian film crew and sought the help of moviemakers in Hollywood to pull it off. Each of the Americans would be given a fake identity and role in the production of “Argo,” a phony sci-fi movie that required a desert setting. Assuming their aliases, the group would then escape right under the noses of the Iranians, flying to Canada out of Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport.
The rescue was a great success story, one that the United States and the Carter administration badly needed. But although the six escapees were home safe, the fact remained that 52 other hostages were still being held with no end to their captivity in sight.
The oldest among them was Manistee native Robert Ode, a retired Foreign Service officer. At age 65, Ode had little patience for the situation he was put in. Not only was he decades older than his captors, most of whom were in their early 20s, he had already spent a month in Tehran as part of a 45-day temporary assignment.
But according to his fellow prisoners, Ode used his elder status to his advantage. He would instinctively exploit the Iranian respect for age despite having never spent time in Iran before his assignment. And during times of particular mistreatment, which were often, he was unafraid of scolding his young captors.
In one such instance, Ode demanded a doctor for his ailing friend and lit in to the prison guard when his request was denied. His diary, dated Dec. 11, 1980 states, “404th day: Doctor has not come yet to see Don. I complained vociferously to Abbas and told him that while they profess to be concerned for the hostages’ welfare, in reality they couldn’t care less! Of course he denied it said they are concerned but of course there are problems!”
Ode also served as a source of comfort to the other hostages. “Sometimes I acted as an amateur doctor or amateur priest,” he stated after his release.
And when times felt hopeless, his refusal to be a victim boosted morale inside the prison. “I told him [a fellow prisoner] to speak for himself,” his diary states. “I had things to live for, that I fully intended to walk out of here to join my wife”
And that’s just what he did. The hostages were finally released on inauguration day Jan. 20, 1981, after lengthy negotiations. Ode rejoined his wife, Rita, at their home in Arizona and accepted no further temporary assignments from the State Department.
Ode, who died in 1995, attended Olivet College in the late 1930s, but was forced to drop out because of the Great Depression. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, making several Pacific landings, and was there to watch Gen. Douglas MacArthur make his famous walk through the surf on his return to the Philippines.
Ode later joined the State Department as a staff officer, and was assigned to embassies or consulates in Poland, England, Ireland, Italy, Canada, Liberia, Switzerland and Germany. He retired at the age of 60, but in 1977 accepted some temporary assignments overseas where his experience was needed. One such assignment was to assist in the aftermath of the Jonestown Massacre.
In September 1979, Ode was asked to accept an assignment to relieve an officer at the American Embassy in Iran for 45 days. He was to return to the United States in mid-November before he was taken hostage.
Olivet College awarded Ode with the degree Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, shortly after his release, and he also spoke about his experiences during Alumni Day May 9, 1981. Rita Muth Ode died March 18, 2012 at the age of 93. Together, the Odes contributed a $250,000 gift to the college to establish the Robert C. and Rita M. Ode Scholarship Fund.