Gary E. Lee, State Dept. official who survived hostage ordeal, dies at 67

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 7:14 PM

Gary E. Lee, 67, a State Department officer in Tehran who in 1979 was taken hostage by Iranian militants and braved mock executions, beatings and near starvation during 444 days in captivity, died Oct. 10 at his home in Fulton, Tex. He had cancer.

Mr. Lee was one of 52 Americans held inside the U.S. Embassy until they were released Jan. 20, 1981. Another hostage, Richard Morefield, who was U.S. consul general at the time, died Oct. 11.

Mr. Lee, the son of a missionary in India, joined the State Department in 1971. He gained a reputation as a troubleshooter and was often dispatched overseas to danger spots, including Syria and Yemen.

He often handled logistics for presidential visits to the Middle East and was a key coordinator for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" during the early 1970s.

In May 1979, Mr. Lee volunteered for service in Iran, where anti-American fervor echoed in the streets during protests of a U.S. decision to grant temporary shelter to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the ailing Iranian shah.

The political turmoil peaked Nov. 4, 1979, when a mob of Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy. Mr. Lee escaped out of a back door and was sprinting through an alley when Kalashnikov rifle bullets whizzed by his ears.

He was apprehended by militants several blocks from the compound. He was confined to a dark room with no windows that the prisoners dubbed the "mushroom."

Mr. Lee was kept in isolation for weeks at a time. He later told how he "made friends" with a salamander that crawled around his room and how he teased ants with a pistachio, nudging the nut along the floor to keep it out of their reach.

When the guards fed him raw chicken, he dreamed of steaming pork chops. He lost 30 pounds.

To keep himself alert, Mr. Lee designed a patio in his head to add on to his home in Falls Church.

Mr. Lee was blindfolded and beaten and subjected to three separate mock executions. He recalled imagining that he "could feel the bullets in my back."

"I bought it," Mr. Lee later told Time magazine. "I thought I was a dead man."

Upon his return home, Mr. Lee received more than 300 letters - and several cases of beer. He responded to every piece of mail.

Mr. Lee continued to work for the State Department and did not rule out working abroad again. There was one exception.

"I won't go to Iran," he said. "But I'll go anywhere else."

Gary Earl Lee was born Feb. 4, 1943, in Kingston, N.Y. He graduated from Youngstown State University in Ohio and was enrolled in a master's program in business at Kent State University when he decided, on a lark, to take the Foreign Service exam.

He passed on the first try and, shortly after, was sent to India for his inaugural State Department posting.

Mr. Lee said coming home after being a hostage was difficult. The duration of Mr. Lee's captivity strained his relationship with his wife, Pat, who told reporters that she received only a few notes from her husband throughout the entire ordeal.

"We were so compatible before," she said in an interview during his time in captivity. "But people can change so much in a year."

They divorced not long after his return home. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Mr. Lee retired to Texas after federal service. He was often seen among friends at the 301 Bar and Grill, where he sat on a stool draped in the U.S. flag.

Reached by phone at the establishment one recent afternoon, his friend Patty Asack said that the flag had been removed from Mr. Lee's usual seat at the bar and that the stool had been ceremonially tipped forward to mark his absence.

On the bar in front of Mr. Lee's spot, bartenders placed one shot glass upside down and another filled to the rim with scotch.

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