WASHINGTON -- William F. Keough Jr., the 6-foot-9 spokesman for the 52 Americans held hostage 444 days at the U.S. Embassy in Iran, has died after a four-year battle with Lou Gehrig's disease.
The soft-spoken educator died at his home Wednesday, with his wife, Katherine, at his bedside. He was 55.
While held captive by militant students during the most intense days of the revolution led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Keough's face became familiar to the public. But he insisted after the ordeal that the hostages move forward and 'shake this off like a dog shakes water off coming out of a pond.'
Keough was diagnosed within a year of his release in January 1981 as having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable degenerative ailment of the central nervous system known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
'There's no sense wringing your hands,' the educator said in an interview last summer, referring to the disease he knew would take his life. 'I keep remembering a line from Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' that goes, 'Cowards die many times before their deaths; but the valiant taste of death but once.'
Keough, of Waltham, Mass., had been superintendent of the 4,000-student American School in Tehran but already had taken up his new post as superintendent of the American School in Islamabad, Pakistan. He had returned to the embassy in Tehran to collect student records at the time of its seizure by the militants on Nov. 4, 1979.
The hostages were taken after the flight into exile of Shah Reza Pahlavi and the rise to power of Khomeini with his frenzied desire to make Iran an Islamic republic.
Keough had been threatened with death by firing squad and his wife said he identified deeply with the victims of the recent spate of terrorist attacks in the Middle East.
The release of the Iran hostages was tied to the return of the shah to face trial for alleged crimes against the Iranian people, a demand President Carter refused to meet. The shah later died of cancer.
A military attempt to free the hostages forcibly after diplomatic efforts had failed ended in tragedy in the staging area in the southern Iranian desert on April 24, 1980. Eight Americans on the mission were killed when two planes collided as the force withdrew from the staging area.
Refusal of Carter to meet the militants' demand was considered one of the major causes of his overwhelming defeat in November 1980 by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. presidential election.
As a last act of defiance against Carter, the militants waited until minutes after the inauguration of Reagan on Jan. 20, 1981, before releasing the hostages.
Keough served as the head of schools in Townshend and Burlington, Vt., Huntington, N.Y., and Bedford before accepting the post in Iran.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters and a son from a previous marriage, his mother and a brother.
Keough remained in Washington after his release by his Iranian captors and most recently worked from his home as director of overseas schools for the Department of Education.