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John Christopher Stevens, 1960-2012: A Northern California Hero

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In the early evening of Tuesday, Oct. 16, while most of the rest of the country focused on the second presidential debate, the family of the murdered U.S. ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens, sponsored a "celebration of life" in his name. The memorial took place in the rotunda of San Francisco's City Hall.

Little media coverage has dealt with Stevens' personal background as "a son of Northern California," epitomizing the specific character of its residents and so described by the program speakers in San Francisco. Stevens was born in Grass Valley, Calif., on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Grass Valley, once famous for its rich gold mines, has been a haven for independent thinkers since the 19th century, when it was the birthplace of the "California philosopher" Josiah Royce (1855-1916). Barely remembered today, Royce was an insightful commentator on spirituality, psychology, logic and mathematics, and a controversial historian of California. Royce borrowed the biblical phrase "to serve the devil" in a denunciation of American depredations against California's Spanish-speaking inhabitants after the territory was seized from Mexico in 1846-48.

J. Christopher Stevens seems to have inherited a good deal of Royce's legacy. Like Royce, he tried to fulfill American ideals and interests through generosity and respect for other cultures. Moreover, Stevens may have outdone Royce in his local, Western identity. Stevens was a member of the Chinook nation of indigenous Americans, a matter unfortunately left unmentioned at the San Francisco remembrance. Through his mother, Stevens was a direct descendant of Chief Coboway, also known as Comcomly (1765-1830), a Chinook elder in the Pacific Northwest. Coboway assisted the U.S. pathfinders Lewis and Clark in their 1804-06 expedition across the North American continent, the first undertaken by Americans, and commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson.

Christopher Stevens was also an explorer. As a young man, he migrated with his family around Northern California. They lived in Marin County, directly up the Pacific Coast from San Francisco and another place symbolic of a special Northern California outlook. He further resided in Davis, in the state's Central Valley, and in Piedmont, a suburb in the San Francisco East Bay. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1982, with a degree in history. He served in the Peace Corps, learning Arabic, and after a short chapter as a lawyer, joined the Foreign Service in 1992. He became a Middle East specialist, serving in various Arab countries and in Israel. When the Libyan Revolution began, he was America's official liaison to the National Transitional Council in Benghazi.

The ceremony at San Francisco City Hall was open to the public and drew at least 1,000 spectators. Its tone was subdued, perhaps reflecting the terrible situation in which Stevens died. But its restrained feeling may have expressed, as well, a desire to distance honors to Stevens from the national political controversy that has followed the radical Islamist raid in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Still, the second presidential debate addressed foreign policy, and it must have been linked, in the minds of many, to the Stevens eulogies.

Beginning with a performance of Mozart and Schubert by a string quartet that included cellist David Commanday, Stevens' stepbrother, the event continued with the appearance of a U.S. Marine Corps color guard and singing of the National Anthem. The Commanday connection was another that distinguished Christopher Stevens as a Northern Californian; Stevens' stepfather, Robert Commanday, was classical music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and therefore well-known in Bay Area cultural circles.

Following the color guard and The Star-Spangled Banner, retired Episcopal Bishop William Swing delivered an invocation commencing with the New Testament citation, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God" (Matthew 5:9). Swing also delivered a final benediction.

The rest of the one and one-half hour commemoration included a short speech by San Francisco mayor Edwin M. Lee, who claimed Stevens as an exemplar of the San Francisco Bay Area's tradition of producing "citizens of the world." There was more string music, interspersed with funny reminiscences by Stevens' brother and sisters, a fellow-alumnus at Berkeley, Steven MacDonald, and Mary Neumayr, who studied with him at UC Hastings College of the Law. The UC Men's Glee Club Alumni sang, at intervals, the Christian hymn "Shall We Gather At the River," a UC Berkeley school song, "Sons of California," and, at the conclusion, "America the Beautiful."

Most of the intervening remarks were brief, mainly delivered by former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and by Thomas R. Pickering, who had served as U.S. Undersecretary of State. Each found a way to deliver a subtly sharp message about the commitment Christopher Stevens undertook in joining the Foreign Service.

Shultz noted that the necktie he was wearing at City Hall bore the inscription "Democracy is not a spectator sport." Pickering, alone among the speakers, recited the names of the three Americans who died, apart from Stevens, in the Benghazi attack: Foreign Service officer Sean Smith, and security contractors Glen A. Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods.

But the most affecting remarks were delivered to the mourners of John Christopher Stevens by Ali Suleiman Aujali, ambassador of the new Libyan government to the U.S. Aujali began with, and repeated, an apology from the Libyan people to their American counterparts, which elicited the most applause of the night. He proclaimed Stevens a hero who would never be forgotten by Libyans. Unfortunately, the manifest repudiation by many Libyans of the attack on Stevens, especially in Benghazi, has received insufficient attention in the U.S. But Aujali's sincerity and emotion were undeniable.

Stevens' sister, Anne Sullivan, recounted an anecdote that, for her, summed up her brother's life. In a Cairo restaurant, a waiter spoke to Stevens in Arabic, and when she asked for a translation, Stevens said the man declared, "When you walk in, the whole world lights up."

As emphasized repeatedly, John Christopher Stevens, who died at 52 in a dark place, was a hero, an embodiment of light and liberty. He sought to enjoin good and prevent evil -- an Islamic principle. Between these two human characteristics, he placed himself as a protector of the innocent and the oppressed. Like his ancestor, Chinook Chief Coboway, he sought to open a way for others. And he died a martyr. As a Northern Californian myself for 50 years, I affirm that John Christopher Stevens was a distinct kind of hero, a special personality for Northern Californians as well as other Americans, Libyans and, in Mayor Lee's phrase, "citizens of the world." Few could better represent, in Abraham Lincoln's phrase, "the better angels of our nature."

John Christopher Stevens will be interred in Grass Valley next month.