OAKLAND -- The U.S. ambassador killed in Libya never lost his laid-back, Bay Area ethos, even last year, when he was Washington's man in the thicket of one of the Arab Spring's most violent uprisings.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, a 52-year-old who attended Piedmont High School and UC Berkeley, was one of four Americans killed when militants attacked the American Consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday -- the 11th anniversary of 9/11.
Stevens, a veteran foreign service officer and Arabic speaker, was tapped last year as an envoy to the rebels in Benghazi, who ultimately toppled the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. With only a small team, Stevens navigated an urban war zone and survived a bombing outside his hotel to provide the Obama administration with vital information about the rebel cause, said Gene Cretz, Stevens' predecessor as ambassador in Libya.
"Even during crisis, he was cool and calm," Cretz said. "I used to kid him about being a California guy. I wanted to shake him sometimes because he was so calm."
The cool customer that Cretz recalled was remembered similarly by friends, who knew Stevens as a well-rounded, brilliant student who sang in musicals, played tennis, skied and edited his high school newspaper.
"He was one of the smartest men I knew, and one of the least judgmental," said Austin Tichenor, who went to high school with Stevens and was his college roommate at UC Berkeley. "He could always see the other guy's point of view. It's what made him such a perfect diplomat."
Stevens' family gathered at their home in the Oakland Hills on Wednesday, but most of his relatives weren't ready to talk about his death.
His stepfather, Robert Commanday, a former theater and music critic, said he never saw Stevens lose his temper. "He was calm and cool and happy, and people loved him because he was interested in them," Commanday said.
Stevens studied languages, history and classics at Berkeley, and later fell in love with the Middle East as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
He joined the Foreign Service in 1991 after attending UC Hastings College of the Law and working several years as an attorney. Nearly all of his posts were in the Middle East and North Africa, including a previous stint in Libya.
Thrust into war zone
Stevens was working and teaching in Washington, D.C., when the Arab Spring revolutions spread to Libya last year, Cretz said.
"When the president had mentioned we needed an envoy to Benghazi, I thought of Chris," Cretz said. "Within 15 minutes, I had called and asked him, and within 20 minutes, Chris had said yes."
Two weeks later, Stevens was on a ferry to Benghazi, where he remained from April 2011 through the end of the revolution. The two spoke almost daily, with Stevens providing his assessments of the uprising, counseling rebel leaders against using torture and supplying the rebels with nonlethal aid.
"He was the key link for us on the ground," Cretz said. "He showed courage going into that situation. There was nobody in the country. He was literally the eyes and ears of the American government at a critical time in this intervention."
"It's especially tragic that Chris Stevens died in Benghazi because it is a city that he helped to save," President Barack Obama said Wednesday.
Love of Libya
Stevens was promoted to ambassador in May. Before the start of his tenure, he made a promotional video telling Libyans that the U.S. was dedicated to helping the country.
"He was someone who was deeply involved in Libyan life and loved Libya from what I can tell," said Emily Gottreich, a UC Berkeley professor who was talking with Stevens about setting up a mission to connect Libyan and American scholars. "It's a tragedy because he was someone who understood the need for local knowledge. ... He wanted Libya to have good institutions of higher education."
Commanday said Stevens grew to love Libya and made an effort to go out into the street and talk to people. "He was murdered by the people he loved," Commanday said. "The people he was trying to help."
Stevens and three other Americans were killed Tuesday night when he and a group of embassy employees went to the American Consulate in Benghazi to try to evacuate staff as the building came under attack by a mob firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The protest was sparked by outrage over a film ridiculing Muhammad produced by an Israeli filmmaker living in California and being promoted by an extreme anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the United States. Excerpts from the film dubbed into Arabic were posted on YouTube.
Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since 1979.
Man of integrity
Stevens, who never married and had no children, comes from a family of high achievers. His mother, Mary Commanday, was a professional cellist. His father, Jan Stevens, is a longtime attorney for the state; his sister, Anne, is a professor and doctor; and his younger brother, Tom, is a U.S. attorney specializing in white-collar crime.
Stevens always wanted to work for the State Department and always was interested in public service, according to his college friend and fraternity brother Steve McDonald. "You never knew someone with more integrity," McDonald said.
Even when Stevens was stationed in lawless Benghazi, his correspondences were always good-natured and upbeat, McDonald said. "You wouldn't hear about the difficulty, only the enthusiasm and the results," he said.
Stevens returned to his family home in Oakland every year and hoped to eventually move back to the Bay Area, McDonald said. But he was committed to finishing the job in Libya -- a point he made earnestly during his last visit home earlier this year, when his mother joked about not having any interests in the country.
"He said, 'Well, mother, I'm heading over there to help the Libyan people as they build their new government and represent the United States' interests,' " McDonald recalled. It might have sounded like diplomatic speak, but it was sincere, McDonald said.
"Hillary Clinton said today we need more Chris Stevens," he said. "She's absolutely right."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.