Antonio Mendez, retired CIA agent, featured in lecture series

STEUBENVILLE – The committee searching for just the right speaker to feature for the second installment in the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Herald-Star Lecture Series knew immediately Antonio Mendez was their man.

Mendez is the retired CIA agent who spirited six Americans out of Tehran virtually under the nose of Iranian authorities 33 years ago and whose work was the inspiration for the Oscar-nominated thriller, “Argo.”

Mendez, who retired from the CIA in 1990 and now spends his time painting and writing, will tell his story during a 7:30 p.m. April 9 appearance in the Steubenville High School auditorium.

The Oscars are Sunday, and “Argo” is up for awards in seven categories – including the coveted Best Picture, for which it’s considered a front-runner, as well as best film editing, best sound mixing, best sound editing, best original score, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actor.

Chamber President Sue Hershey, a member of the search committee, said the Oscar connection makes Mendez’s story both topical and timely.

“It’s a story not everybody knows about, but I think it will pique their interest,” she said following a Wednesday press conference at Eastern Gateway Community College. “The entire world knew about (the hostage crisis) and had an opinion on it, and the guy who masterminded the rescue of six American citizens and got them out of Iran is going to be here.”

In 1980 the CIA called on Mendez, the spy agency’s master of disguise, to figure a way to get the six Americans, forced to hide in the Canadian embassy after they slipped away from the Islamic militants that had taken control of their own embassy, out of Iran.

His plan? Dusting off an outlandish Hollywood script and setting up a bogus production company, planting news stories and disguising the six Americans as members of a Canadian production company.

“For me it was the timing with the film,” committee member Suzanne Kresser said. “And it’s a great follow-up – at our last lecture, we had a member of (first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s) Secret Service detail; this time it’s a CIA agent.”

That first lecture, in November, had a crowd of more than 900 hanging on every word from Special Agent Clint Hill, who recalled that fateful day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

“Clint Hill was a great success, the timing of it couldn’t have been better,” said Ross Gallabrese, Herald-Star executive editor. “And now we have the opportunity to have Antonio Mendez come in, right after the Oscars.”

Gallabrese credited the presenting sponsors, Eastern Gateway Community College and Franciscan University of Steubenville, with making the event possible. Supporting sponsors including Bayberry House Bed & Breakfast, Apollo Pro Cleaning, Piergallini Catering, Newbrough Photo, D’Anniballe & Co., Thrifty Car Rentals and Steubenville City Schools also donated in-kind services.

The Rev. Richard Davis, TOR, the university’s director of community relations, and Eastern Gateway President Laura Meeks agree the lecture series is a chance to take education beyond classroom walls.

“We can reach beyond the boundaries of the campus, take it into the workplace and homes,” Davis said. “I think it invites people to participate in ways they might never have had the opportunity to otherwise.”

And Meeks said she’s hoping another packed house takes advantage of the opportunity.

“Our mission is to engage people,” she added. “We can do it in so many places, so many ways. This is one important way we can do it.”

Tickets are priced at $15 for general admission, or $20 for reserved seats, and may be purchased at the Herald-Star offices, 401 Herald Square; by calling (740) 283-4711 or by following the “Lecture Series” link on the Herald-Star website,

A limited number of VIP ticket packages, which include a private reception with Mendez and his wife, can be purchased by contacting the chamber of commerce at (740) 282-6226.

(Harris can be contacted at