PIEDMONT -- The motto of Piedmont High School is "Achieve the Honorable."
It's a phrase that J. Christopher Stevens became familiar with during his years at the school. And during the past week, the Piedmont community has reflected on what that meant for Stevens and the sacrifice he made for the nation.
Stevens was killed a year ago while serving as U.S. ambassador to Libya during an attack by insurgents in Benghazi. The reason for the attack was unknown, with the Obama administration insisting it was spontaneous while others speculated that the killers may have been linked to ousted Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi.
On Sept 11, members of the Piedmont Unified School District voted to name the school library the "Ambassador Chris Stevens Memorial Library."
A moment of silence was held in his honor at Piedmont High School that morning. On Sept. 13, a commemoration of Stevens' service was held at halftime during the Piedmont High varsity football game.
Tuesday was Constitution Day nationwide and social science teachers planned to discuss Stevens' life and its relevance to current affairs. Some students also wore purple bracelets that read "Remembering Chris Stevens, Class of 1978."
Stevens' mother, Mary (Stevens) Commanday, remembered her son as playing the saxophone in high school and taking part in school drama productions. He also played tennis and served as editor of the school newspaper, The Highlander.
But the path that would lead Stevens to foreign service began when he went to Spain through the American Foreign Study exchange program in the summer of 1977. The Basque separatist movement was active in the area where Stevens was studying and he talked with its supporters to find out more about the conflict, Mary Commanday said.
On returning home, Stevens landed in Washington, D.C., where a group of protesters had gathered around the White House. Again, Stevens was interested in the crowd's perspective and did not hesitate to talk to them, his mother said.
"I thought it was unusual that a high school student would think about that, but he was not shy about finding out what these things were about," Mary Commanday said. "I think that's what kind of set him on his course."
But overseas travel was in his blood. When choosing between UC Berkeley and Stanford, Stevens told his mother that he didn't like the Palo Alto campus because it looked too much like Piedmont High. UC Berkeley was his choice, Stevens said, because it looked like a European university.
After graduating from UC Berkeley with a history degree win 1982, Stevens would enlist in the Peace Corps teaching English to the Berber people in the mountains of Morocco, his mother said. He would later earn a law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and worked briefly as a lawyer before joining the U.S. Foreign Service in 1991.
The next two decades saw Stevens become a rising star in the Foreign Service with posts in Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh. He served in Libya twice, including as the special U.S. representative to the National Transitional Council, the insurgents who overthrew Gaddafi in 2011.
He was picked to be ambassador to Libya because of his contacts within the new government, Mary Commanday said. He arrived in May 2012 to take up his position in Benghazi. Though his family worried, Stevens assured his mother that he had four bodyguards and even went running regularly, Mary Commanday said. But that wasn't enough as Stevens was killed in an attack on the Benghazi consulate.
"He knew there was danger, but there was nothing you could do," she said. "These people were too sudden and too violent."
Controversy surrounded the consulate attack, with members of Congress demanding answers about security and the Obama administration's response. Mary Commanday and her husband, Robert, insist Stevens was not political and worked to promote better relations between the United States and governments in the Middle East.
"His agenda was to bring an understanding of the United States to the Middle East and Mideast culture to the United States," his mother said. "He worked to be a bridge between these two cultures."
As a memorial to Stevens' work, an endowment has been set up at UC Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies to help students pursue research in the major.