The first time former Canadian ambassador Kenneth Taylor stepped foot onto UC Berkeley in 1957, he was excited to be part of what he likes to call California’s “always-looking-over-the-horizon” mentality.
Taylor, born and raised in Canada, was eager to see what lay beyond the border as he had yearned for an international dimension to his life.
On April 18 — marking his most recent visit to UC Berkeley — Taylor and his wife and UC Berkeley alumna Patricia Taylor accepted the honor of Alumni Couple of the Year, awarded by UC Berkeley’s International House at its 25th Annual Celebration Awards Gala.
The Taylors are most noted for their pivotal role in the escape of six American hostages captured from the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. Taylor, serving as the Canadian ambassador in Iran at the time, helped house the hostages and collaborated with the CIA to devise a plan to smuggle the hostages out of Tehran and get them home safely. Taylor played a crucial role in providing intelligence of the hostage crisis to both Canadian and American intelligence agencies.
“You try to draw the line between what is feasible to do and what is too risky,” Taylor said of the crisis. “You try to be prudent, but at the same time, you can’t lock yourself in a fortress because you’ve got to interact with the country instead of just the post you’re assigned to.”
This collaborative operation between the U.S. and Canada served as the inspiration for the multiple-Academy-Award-winning movie, “Argo.”
It was at I-House that Taylor jump-started his diplomatic career, comparing the student residence to a capital city with a lot of embassies.
“These students are not diplomats, but it gives you an idea of what it is to meet so many different people from so many different places,” Taylor said.
But according to Taylor, more importantly, I-House is where he met his wife. Taylor, who was then pursuing his MBA at the Haas School of Business, met Australian-born Patricia over breakfast one October day in 1958 in I-House’s dining hall.
“It was a real Bay Area romance,” Taylor said. “We went to school in Berkeley, we got married in Berkeley and we left by ship from SF to Guatemala to begin the rest of our lives together.”
The second time Taylor came to UC Berkeley, it was under the protection of a bullet-proof vest. He delivered a speech on Charter Day in 1980 just after the tumultuous events that had strained relations between the U.S. and Iran took place in Tehran.
Campus police were concerned that Iranian students at UC Berkeley would protest Taylor’s speech, so Taylor was given protection in case things turned violent.
“The university was concerned about security because emotions were running high,” Taylor said. “There was chaos and flags being burned, but I just continued speaking — I wasn’t even sure if anyone was listening or not.”
According to Shanti Corrigan, the director of development and alumni relations at I-House, the Taylors were chosen as Alumni Couple of the Year for their heroic efforts as well as their support of UC Berkeley and I-House through fundraisers they have held in New York, where they currently live.
“Their heroism and involvement in the hostage crisis of 1979 is something to celebrate,” Corrigan said. “The Taylors represent in all the wonderful ways the spirit of I-House.”
According to Corrigan, I-House has never honored a couple before, making the Taylors its first.
I-House also presented the Global Foundation for Peace award to Reeta Roy, the president and CEO of MasterCard Foundation, which has committed half a billion dollars to establish a scholars program that brings 15,000 students from disadvantaged communities to study at top universities in the U.S., including UC Berkeley.
In his welcome speech at the gala, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau made note of his personal connection to the Taylors.
Birgeneau met the couple while Taylor was the Canadian ambassador and Birgeneau was president of the University of Toronto. Birgeneau and Taylor have been friends ever since.
“They are national heroes,” Birgeneau said. “Ken’s a courageous person and also very friendly. (He and his wife are) what I would call good people.”
After his post in Iran, both Taylor and his wife went on to receive many career accolades, such as the Congressional Gold Medal that Taylor received in 1980 and the Order of Canada, which the couple shares. Taylor is now the chairman of a public equity company, Vertility Technology Corporation.
Yet coming back to UC Berkeley has always been a new and humbling experience for the Taylors.
“I like the freedom and the anonymity of Berkeley,” Taylor said. “There are so many students with a range of issues, and it really is a liberating campus. I think students should enjoy their four years here because it might be the last time (they) are fairly carefree and can explore things intellectually without being constrained by other realities.”
Pooja Mhatre is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter argo, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, I-House, Kenneth Taylor, Patricia Taylor, Reeta Roy, Shanti Corrigan