Slain ambassador remembered as a man of peace with a big heart

UC Berkeley today mourned the loss of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, an East Bay-bred alumnus who epitomized the best values of the university.

Stevens was killed Tuesday night, along with three others, in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.

A Peace Corps stint in the 1980s, after Stevens studied history at Berkeley, awoke in him a passion for the Middle East and started him on the path of a lifetime career in foreign service there. His latest posting in Tripoli was his third in Libya and the last of many in the region, according to the State Department.

Chris Stevens (center) on Lower Sproul Plaza

Chris Stevens (center) on Lower Sproul Plaza, at the end of his senior year at UC Berkeley, in a still photo included in a video on his life posted by the U.S. State Department, complete with subtitles in Arabic.

“He played a key role in supporting the Libyan revolution and was a champion for the country’s democracy,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau in a statement of mourning and condolence Wednesday. “His life epitomized the best of UC Berkeley’s graduates, a commitment to excellence at the highest level and a passion for making the world a better and more peaceful place.”

He added, “On behalf of our campus community, we extend our sincere condolences to his family, colleagues and friends.”

Stevens grew up in Piedmont, graduated from high school there and had deep family roots at UC Berkeley. His father, Jan S. Stevens, was a Berkeley graduate before him, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1955 and a law degree in 1958. His mother, retired Marin Symphony cellist Mary Commanday, obtained her A.B. in English at Berkeley in 1958. And his stepfather is Robert Commanday, who earned an M.A. in music at Berkeley in 1952 and then served as a longtime classical-music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and founder of San Francisco Classical Voice.

At Berkeley, Stevens majored in history, wrapping up his studies in 1982. His senior thesis delved into immigration to California in the 19th century, looking specifically at Cornish hard-rock miners who settled the Sierra Nevada foothills towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City during the Gold Rush in Northern California. He was a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.

“Growing up in California, I didn’t know much about the Arab world,” he said in a State Department video made earlier this year to introduce the newly appointed ambassador to the Libyan people. The video, posted on YouTube, shows a young Stevens posing for a snapshot on a hike in the mountains of Northern California, and in front of Cesar Chavez Center on Lower Sproul Plaza at Berkeley around the time of his graduation.

After finishing up at Berkeley, Stevens did what many UC Berkeley graduates do and signed up for the Peace Corps. An assignment teaching English in Morocco from 1983 to 1985 opened the world of the Middle East to him.

Back in the United States, Stevens returned to school and earned a law degree at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco in 1989. Hastings Chancellor Frank H. Wu said Wednesday that Stevens “was performing the highest role that a lawyer is called upon to perform: public service… This is a tragedy. We mourn this loss.”

Stevens worked as an international trade lawyer in Washington, D.C., before signing in with the Foreign Service in 1991, according to his State Department biography. Later, he earned a master’s degree at the National War College.

His arrival in Tripoli as ambassador, in May, began his third stint in the country, and came amid Libya’s efforts to stabilize as a democracy after the downfall of dictator Moammar Khadafy. Stevens had previously served as special representative to the Libyan Transitional National Council from March 2011 to November 2011 during the Libyan revolution, and as the deputy chief of mission from 2007 to 2009. He had also served in Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh.

In his video, he rejoiced in Libya’s transition away from dictatorship and, filmed climbing the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, he compared the Libyan people’s struggle to that of Americans during the Civil War.

At Berkeley Wednesday, those who knew Stevens or knew of his work expressed sorrow for the campus, his family and the country.

“The life of Ambassador Stevens represents everything we hope for in our students,” said history department chair Ethan Shagan, adding his condolences to those from the chancellor. “He majored in history to learn about the world, and then he used that knowledge to make the world a better place. We are proud of his career. His death is a tragedy, and we mourn his passing.”

One of Stevens’ frat brothers at Alpha Tau Omega 30 years ago, KPIX-TV anchor and fellow Cal graduate Frank Mellicoat, remembered him as “a rock-solid guy who always had a smile and liked to make people smile.”

“He was just a good guy,” said Mellicoat, who shared the Alpha Tau Omega house with Stevens for three years. “He had a soothing way, soft-spoken, but what he said carried a lot of weight — I think that’s probably what made him a good ambassador.”

(This article was updated on Sept. 19, 2012, to add details about Ambassador Stevens’ family.)