Whatever happened to: Paul Lewis

Thirty-two years ago this month, Paul Lewis was returned after 444 days as a hostage in Iran. Today, the financial adviser from Sidney is out of the spotlight and that's fine with him. Lewis' story is the centerpiece of our "whatever happened to" Sunday special.

Paul Lewis was supposed to go to Rome.

He was a Marine, stationed in 1979 at the U.S. embassy in Budapest, Hungary. His next assignment was the embassy in Rome.

"There were other open posts in Europe that I wanted to go to, like Madrid. I wouldn't have minded going to Madrid. Lisbon had an opening. And I thought (my) seniority would get me in there. Any tourist can go to see Rome."

And the duties, as assistant noncommissioned officer in charge?

"Like any other job, the assistant gets to do what the boss doesn't want to do, and that's always the discipline and inspections, and you're kind of the bad guy."

So when his boss in Budapest mentioned "they're asking for volunteers to go to Tehran and they want senior people with post experience because it's tense," Lewis decided that sounded better.

The country's U.S.-backed ruler, the shah, had left the country in January 1979, amid a revolution against his rule and growing support for a religious figure, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Tension in the country was well underway in October, when Lewis volunteered for the Tehran post. The shah, who had not abdicated, was allowed into the U.S. that month for medical treatment, angering the Iranian revolutionaries.

"What could be more interesting than to watch a revolution from the safety of the U.S. embassy?" said Lewis. "You knew there was probably going to be some riots and maybe some shots. But you assumed that all the conditions that you were trained to understand would be in place. And one of the conditions is the host nation is entirely responsible for external security of an American embassy. So you assume that if somebody decided they couldn't provide that, that you would leave. Well, you never do. You stay and make the best of it."

He arrived Nov. 3, 1979, and got a tour of the embassy compound: 27 acres, 60 buildings, mortar holes here and there in the ground from occasional rocket fire.

The next morning, he got up at about 8:30. "I was in the shower. That's when they attacked the embassy."

Iranians stormed the embassy and took Lewis and 51 others hostage.

It would be 444 days — the rest of 1979, all of 1980 and the first weeks of 1981 — before they were freed.

Lewis would be beaten a half-dozen times in the first weeks. Captured with no embassy identification, he was initially considered a spy. After an aborted rescue attempt in 1980, the hostages were moved around the country. Most got dysentery.

Lewis came back to Champaign County and, for 25 years, has run Lewis Wealth Management Group. His wife, Kristi, and their sons Nathan and Nicholas all work there.

Lewis, now 56, recently discussed his recollections about being taken hostage, and about his life in the decades that have followed.

On volunteering for duty in Tehran:

"What could be more interesting than to watch a revolution from the safety of the U.S. embassy? You knew there was probably going to be some riots and maybe some shots. But you assumed that all the conditions that you were trained to understand would be in place. And one of the conditions is the host nation is entirely responsible for external  security of an American embassy. So you assume that if somebody decided they couldn’t provide that, that you would leave. Well, you never do. You stay and make the best of it.”

His early belief that the takeover would end fairly quickly:

"I kept thinking 'Somebody's going to work this out.' With a Western mind, it's only logical that once the crowds died down — of course, they didn't for weeks and weeks and weeks — that somebody would come and firmly remove the students and then we'd be politely kicked out of the country."

On daily existence after being captured:

"After the initial period, it was mostly boredom with those periods of intense fear or danger. But in the down times I was just driven nuts by the open-endedness of it. I didn't have a two-year sentence or a six-month sentence or an eight-year sentence. You just didn't know when it was going to end or how it was going to end. And that really troubled me. And the other thing was not having any information."

On being taken to a plane at the Tehran airport and freedom:

"We counted heads a hundred times to make sure we weren't missing anybody. Felt good about the plane leaving but then, realistically, there's still Iraqis, they're still fighting a war with Iraq, and I'd hate to get shot down by a MiG or some ticked-off F4 pilot from Iran.

"When they told us that we'd entered Turkish airspace, it did cut loose. Not till then. We picked up two U.S. F-4s. They wing-wagged us."

On his first contact with his family, after the freed hostages had arrived in Wiesbaden, Germany:

A chaplain came in "and said, 'you know, we told you you had the phone bank.' And I said, 'yeah, it's 10:30 at home, Dad gets up early. I'll call him in the morning. He said, 'You know, you probably ought to go down and do it now. They're probably still up.'

"So I called home and Dad said, 'You want to talk to anybody?' I said 'Well, yeah, Pat and Bill and Mom are home, right?' He said 'Yeah, anybody else?' I said, 'Who else is there?' And he said 'The whole damn town's here.'"

On returning to Homer:

"A lot of people knew who I was. For a little while, I couldn't just go out and get a pizza."

On politics:

"(State Sen. Stanley Weaver) took a liking to me. He asked me to do some work for him. The first thing I saw about politics, guys don't stand for election based on their record. They're running all the time.

"I just thought I'd be hypocritical to say that I believe in family and being responsible to your family and raising your children well, when you're never home. If you run for public office, you just can't do that."

On travel:

"I'd like to go back to Budapest. I would like to go to the Holy Land, but I'm not sure I'd be a good candidate for a tourist in that part of the world."

On himself:

"I had a lot of time to reflect and think about things. I try not to get too worried about what I can't control. I don't like things being out of my control. So the things that I can't control, I don't worry about. I take care of my little space. I can't stand to not be able to kind of set my own destiny.

"The other thing is, when I really feel stressed and things seem tough, I can always say it's been worse and I got through it."

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Lewis timeline

A look at where Paul Lewis was in the late 1970s and early '80s:

May 1975

Lewis graduates from Homer High School

Fall 1975

Enrolls at Eureka College. Plays football. Injures knee.

February 1976

Joins Marines.

August 1978

Trains to be an embassy guard.

October 1978-

November 1979

Stationed at U.S. embassy, Budapest.

Nov. 3, 1979

Arrives at U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran.

Nov. 4, 1979

Captured at embassy.

Jan. 20, 1981

Freed from embassy.

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