Former Mt. Pleasant Journal reporter revisits local tie to Iranian hostage crisis | TribLIVE.com
Westmoreland

Former Mt. Pleasant Journal reporter revisits local tie to Iranian hostage crisis

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A young Janice Steinhagen attempts to interview former Iran hostage Jerry Miele upon his return to Western Pennsylvania in January 1981.

On the day I was hired for my first job as a reporter, a cryptic two-inch-long story appeared on the front page of the paper that had hired me. The headline read “Local man held in Iran.”

I’d never planned to be a journalist. But 40 years ago, in the fall of 1979, just out of college with an art degree and newly engaged, I was scraping around for a way to earn some money. My local newspaper – the one I’d delivered as a kid – was running an essay contest on “what the First Amendment means to me.” There was a cash prize, and I had aced some essay contests back in parochial school, so I gave it a shot. Before I knew what was happening, I had a job as a staff writer for the weekly Mount Pleasant, Pa. Journal.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, revolutionary extremists had stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. One of them –a balding, bearded man whose blindfolded visage would soon emerge as the national icon of what became known as the hostage crisis – was Mount Pleasant native Jerry Miele.

As the crisis unfolded, the stories about it on our front page became longer and more ominous. As I sat at my desk, grappling with learning to write like a reporter instead of an essayist, I overheard colleagues on the phone with the State Department, trying to squeeze information on Jerry and the other hostages out of tight-lipped spokesmen.

Jerry’s blindfolded but identifiable face appeared every night on TV news, a visual shorthand for the ongoing political standoff. Our mayor, Bill Potoka, called rallies and prayer vigils for townspeople whenever some significant development occurred. Folks showed up en masse in our town square, the Diamond, wearing yellow ribbons (a reference to the popular song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”) and waving American flags.

A cynic might call it grandstanding for the Pittsburgh news media, which were beginning to make regular appearances in our little town of 5,000 people. But someone who grew up there would call it solidarity with Jerry’s family. His mom, an elderly Italian lady who spoke little English, and his sister, a Catholic nun, still lived in town.

My editor, Len DeCarlo, was adamant that we give the Mieles their privacy, not hound them for comments and quotes. “We have to live with these people after this is all over,” he told us.

As the crisis dragged on over a year and attrition took its toll on our newsroom, eventually it was me, the cub reporter, making the phone calls to the State Department. I summoned up all my acting skills to sound professional, as if I knew what I was doing. After a while, the act began to convince even me.

When the hostages were finally released, on day 444 – at practically the same moment that Ronald Regan was sworn in as president – I stood on the front porch of the Mieles’ little house, shaking in my shoes as I knocked on the door. Jerry’s mother answered, and as I explained who I was, she began closing the door in my face, just as I’d feared.

But then I heard a voice from inside: “It’s okay, Ma. It’s the Journal. They’ve been good to us. You can let her in.” Jerry’s mom gave me precious little in the way of quotes, but her daughter the nun filled in the blanks about their joy at the prospect of finally embracing Jerry again.

A week later, they opened the door to me again, this time to interview Jerry himself. This was an exclusive interview – they told me that he would only talk to the Journal. A more seasoned journalist would have been elated at scooping the Pittsburgh Press and WTAE-TV, but I was petrified.

“You’re a guy, Lenny,” I told my editor. “You’re his age. You were in Vietnam. He’ll be able to relate better to you.” But Len was adamant: “It’s your story, has been for some time now. You need to see it through.”

Jerry talked to me for three hours. There were long silences and he was very emotional. Most of what he told me, he asked me not to print. And I didn’t.

He’d been a communications officer at the embassy, and the terrorists had come upon him shredding documents. Because of that, they were harder on him. More than once, he was convinced that he was moments from getting killed. At times, he wanted to die. I got the feeling that he was telling me things he couldn’t tell his family just yet.

He told me he dreaded the massive welcome-home parade Mayor Potoka was planning. He just wanted to get back to his own quiet life and work. But, like us, he still had to live with these people. The townspeople had rallied to support his family, so the least he could do was show up at their celebration of his release.

So, on a frigid February day, Jerry braved the nine-degree weather and stood on the podium at the Diamond with the mayor, the governor, an array of dignitaries and thousands of onlookers. He smiled politely through the speeches and offered a handful of words of thanks himself before the hour-long parade got underway. Mount Pleasant was awash with yellow ribbons and euphoria. Our banner headline that week read “Nine degrees, but the town’s warmest day”.

Jerry retired back home to Mount Pleasant after his State Department career ended. My brother tells me he bumps into him periodically, at the bank or the post office. I imagine he’s grateful that in the four decades since, it’s been my name, not his, appearing in the paper on a regular basis.

Janice Steinhagen lives in Griswold, Conn.

Categories: Local | Westmoreland
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