Long before J. Christopher Stevens was the U.S. ambassador to Libya, he was hitting the books at Moffitt Library as a UC Berkeley student studying for his Arabic finals.
Stevens, who was killed at the age of 52 after the American consulate in Benghazi was attacked Tuesday night, is remembered by his peers and mentors as a one-of-a-kind student, a dear friend and a 1982 UC Berkeley alumnus.
“He was universally very well-liked, and the work that he ultimately ended up migrating to suited him,” said Steve Tovani. “Being a diplomat, being a peacemaker, even putting himself in the line of danger is not surprising to me.”
Tovani was one pledge class ahead of Stevens at the UC Berkeley campus chapter of Alpha Tau Omega. He met Stevens at the chapter’s house during a rush event in Stevens’ freshman year.
“The day he walked into the house I just knew he was the guy that we wanted in the fraternity,” Tovani said. “He had this very easygoing, kind, gentle manner, and it exuded this kind of friendliness.”
Like many Cal students, Stevens frequented longstanding Berkeley institutions like Top Dog and Kip’s Bar, according to Tovani. He enjoyed playing intramural football, attending home games at Memorial Stadium and going to parties to “hoist a beer once in a while,” Tovani said.
As a history major, Stevens was particularly fascinated with the Middle East and could be heard practicing Arabic at the ATO house. Stevens also expressed a fondness for discussion while conversing with the diverse array of characters on Sproul Plaza, according to Tovani.
“Leaving high school he was all of a sudden immersed in a much bigger pond,” Tovani said. “A lot of his interests, goals, and dreams were sparked by his experiences at Cal.”
After Stevens graduated from UC Berkeley, he spent two years with the Peace Corps teaching English in Morocco, according to a statement from Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams. The experience allowed him to nourish a passion for foreign service before working toward a law degree at UC Hastings College of the Law.
UC Hastings professor David Levine taught one of Stevens’ first classes at law school and was impressed by his dedication and perseverance.
“Some people catch your eye, and Chris was one of those people,” Levine said. “He knew what he was doing, he was interested in foreign service and he had a deep interest in the Middle East.”
After Stevens began his career with the Foreign Service in 1991, he worked in Israel, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya, according to his U.S. Department of State biography.
“We were especially thrilled when Ambassador Stevens was named to his post, since he had a longstanding reputation as someone who had local knowledge of Libya, and understood — indeed cared deeply for — Libyan culture, politics and aspirations,” said Emily Gottreich, UC Berkeley professor and president of the American Institute for Maghrib Studies.
Levine said that while he is saddened by the sudden death of Stevens, he admires his commitment to serving the public.
“He earned a public education from Berkeley and Hastings before immediately applying his knowledge to public service,” Levine said. “This is what the University of California is all about.”
Justin Abraham covers academics and administration. Contact him at [email protected].
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