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Slain U.S. ambassador to Libya remembered for his languages, service

Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya killed in an attack on the consulate there, was raised in a musical Bay Area family and played the saxophone "about at the Bill Clinton level," his stepfather joked in a tribute posted on the classical music website he founded.

Stevens was raised in Piedmont, an affluent pocket in the East Bay surrounded by the city of Oakland. He graduated from Piedmont High School in 1978 and from UC Berkeley in 1982, then served two years in the Peace Corps in Morocco before returning to the Bay Area to attend UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

Stevens also received an master's degree from the National War College in 2010. The 52-year-old linguist and diplomat was the son of retired Marin Symphony cellist Mary Commanday and the stepson of Robert Commanday, who was chief music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, after a stint as a lecturer and conductor at UC Berkeley.

PHOTOS: U.S. ambassador killed in Libya

In 1998, Robert Commanday founded the online magazine San Francisco Classical Voice, which in April penned a warm tribute to the 52-year-old Stevens after he was unanimously confirmed as ambassador to Libya by the Senate.

Titled "An Ambassador of Our Own at SFCV," the post quoted "proud mother" Mary Commanday, who said her son's international travels began when he was sent to Morocco by the Peace Corps because of fluency in French.

He also received instruction in Arabic while there, but the Peace Corps ended up sending him "off to the Berber country, up in the mountains, so he had to learn Berber," she was quoted as saying.

After a stint in international law with a private firm, Stevens sought work with the State Department, where, his mother noted, supervisors told him, "Well, since you speak Arabic, we'll send you to Saudi.'"

So began a two-decade diplomatic career, largely in Arabic-speaking countries, each of which required Stevens to learn a slightly different version of the language.

Mary Commanday offered a hint of her son's task in Libya, describing his duties in Benghazi, which began in February 2011, "shortly after the beginning of the insurrection, when [Moammar] Gaddafi was in charge everywhere else and the rebel territory lived a precarious and extremely dangerous existence.

"Stevens," she said, "stayed with the insurgents, supporting their progress to Tripoli and the overthrow of the dictator."

As for his musical talents, Bob Commanday noted that, unlike Clinton, Stevens was shy about the sax, playing "marginally in public. And he performed in one or two musicals at Piedmont High School," he added, "but his only legitimate musical links are to his mother and me."

On Wednesday, Stevens’ death was lamented by Hastings Chancellor Frank Wu, who posted a condolence note on the law school’s website: "The ambassador was performing the highest role that a lawyer is called upon to perform: public service," Wu wrote. "He and I communicated when he was appointed ambassador. He had been looking forward to sharing his experiences with students when he returned. This is a tragedy. We mourn this loss."

ALSO:

Dramatic shootout in downtown L.A. ends police pursuit

Ambassador killed: Mystery surrounds maker of anti-Muslim film

Bank robbery suspects toss money from car during chase ending in South L.A.

-- Lee Romney in San Francisco

 
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