Slain U.S. Ambassador was from the Bay Area

Austin Tichenor and Paul Flest, Piedmont High School classmates of slain Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, share memories of their friendship.

Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Tuesday night, was "a very funny, very smart guy but never got cynical," says Austin Tichenor, a classmate at Piedmont High School and Stevens' roommate at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tichenor and another Piedmont High classmate, Paul Flest, shared their memories of Stevens in phone interviews with Piedmont Patch Wednesday afternoon.

"Chris loved being in that part of the world, trying to make a difference in a troubled part of the world," Tichenor said. 

Stevens was a teenager with "a big goofy grin" who played tennis and acted in musical productions at and Cal, Tichenor said. Stevens and Tichenor shared a birthday — April 18 — and a love of musical theater.

"I directed him in musicals at Cal and in a 1980 musical at Piedmont High School, part of Piedmont's Fourth of July celebration," said Tichenor, who is now an actor, playwright and co-owner of the Reduced Shakespeare Co., a Chicago-based theater group.

Although they took very different career paths, the two men remained friends over the years.

"We were both in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2010 and talked until 2 in the morning — we wouldn't let him shut up," Tichenor said.

He said Stevens also returned to Piedmont about two years ago to share the holidays with his family. Stevens' mother and stepfather, Mary and Robert Commanday (a long-time music critic for the San Francisco Chroncle) still live in Piedmont, Tichenor said. Stevens' father and many other relatives also live in Northern California, he said.

"He's from a big, successful family of doctors and lawyers," Tichenor said.

'Not a Pinstripe Diplomat'

Chris Stevens was "a brilliant civil servant who was willing to roll up his sleeves, not a pinstripe diplomat," says Paul Flest, who worked with Stevens on the Piedmont High student newspaper, The Highlander, and was among friends and family at a party in Piedmont in May of this year to celebrate Stevens' confirmation as ambassador to Libya.

"Chris was a rising star — [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton personally wanted to swear him in," Flest said during a phone interview Wednesday. "He was widely respected on both sides of the aisle."

Flest, who is vice chancellor for communications with the California Community College system, said Stevens took the difficult U.S. Foreign Service exam after serving in the Peace Corps and working for a Washington, D.C. law firm.

"Chris was posted in all these hot spots — Riyadh, Jerusalem, Cairo," Flest said. "He had a real passion for his work, advocating for peace and stability in the region."

As he rose in the Foreign Service, Stevens remained close to old friends and interested in their lives, Flest said. 

"He was always interested, would always ask about your family," he said.

Piedmont High Class of '78

Stevens was a 1978 graduate of Piedmont High, according to a statement from PHS Principal Richard Kitchens.

"He is remembered at Piedmont High as a former editor of the award-winning Piedmont High School newspaper, The Highlander," Kitchens said.

"He was an outstanding student, active in the PHS Model U.N. club, as well as active in the A.F.S. club. He was also active in all the musical productions at PHS and was featured in the quartet in 1978's The Music Man.

A quote from Stevens that accompanies his 1978 yearbook photo reads, "What a bore it is, waking up in the morning always the same person. I wish I were unflinching and emphatic and had big eyebrows and a Message for the Age."

Before moving to Piedmont, Stevens lived in Davis during the late 1960s and '70s, and attended Pioneer Elementary School and Emerson Junior High School there, according to Fox40.

Stevens was killed along with three other Americans in an attack by militants at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Tuesday night. The ambassador was fatally wounded while American and Libyan security personnel fought the attackers together, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in a briefing in Washington, D.C., this morning.

"Heavily armed militants assaulted the compound and set fire to our buildings," Clinton said.

Clinton said a "small and savage group" committed the attack, but the motive is still unclear.

Stevens, 52, had been serving as the U.S. ambassador to Libya since May, according to the State Department. Stevens had served twice previously in Libya, including as a special representative to the Libyan Transitional National Council from March to November 2011, during the country's revolution.

Stevens spent most of his career serving in the Middle East and northern Africa, including stints in Jerusalem, Israel, Damascus, Syria, Cairo, Egypt, and Morocco.

President Barack Obama praised Stevens this morning. "Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States," Obama said in a statement. "His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice."

After graduating from Piedmont High in 1978, Stevens obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley in 1982. He then went on to receive his doctorate from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in 1989. In 2010, Stevens received a master's degree from the National War College.

David Levine, a professor of law at Hastings who taught Stevens, remembered him from his civil procedure class.

"He was sure of himself, but not cocky," Levine said. "He was diplomatic, if you will."

Levine, who has taught at Hastings since 1982, said Stevens had been interested in foreign service since he was beginning at law school.

"He was doing what he loved, and he stayed in it," Levine said. "He could have easily made more money elsewhere, but everything he did was for the United States."

Levine said Stevens' actions on Tuesday night were extremely heroic.

"He was devoted to the work he did, and always went above and beyond," Levine said. "He took risks; when he had a choice between something more dangerous or less dangerous, look what he did."

In a statement issued Wednesday, University of California Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said, "After studying history at UC Berkeley, Chris, like so many of our graduates, joined the Peace Corps, which took him to Morocco in the early 1980s. This experience sparked in him an abiding interest in and passion for the Middle East, leading eventually to his successful career in the Foreign Service and postings in several Middle Eastern countries.

"He played a key role in supporting the Libyan revolution and was a champion for the country’s emerging democracy. 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.

"On behalf of our campus community, we extend our sincere condolences to his family, colleagues and friends. His family includes another UC Berkeley graduate, his father, Jan S. Stevens, who earned his political science and law degrees here in the 1950s. They are in our thoughts and prayers, as are those who also lost their lives in service to our nation in this terrible assault on our consulate."

A U.S. Foreign Service information management officer, Sean Smith, and two other Americans whose names were not released were also killed in the attack.

Despite Tuesday's attack, Clinton today insisted the relationship between Libya and the United States is still strong.

The attack occurred the same day as a protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Clinton said. In light of the two events, Obama has directed his administration to increase security at all United States diplomatic posts throughout the world.

Bay City News Service contributed to this article.

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