My name is Steve McDonald. Chris and I have been friends since we both pledged the ATO fraternity at UC Berkeley in 1978. I want to thank Chris’s family for allowing me the honor of speaking today as we celebrate Chris’s amazing life.
Look at this crowd! How did Chris achieve so much success in his life and career, while managing to make personal and professional connections and lifelong friends all over the world? This beautiful, light filled rotunda is the perfect setting to honor Chris, a true renaissance man who offered a lesson in modern day Enlightenment to all he met.
Some say “don’t sweat the small stuff”; but I think Chris was successful because he did pay attention to the little details and common courtesies that showed the world he cared. The roots of Chris’s enlightening character were evident back when we were undergrads at Cal. I’d like to share some examples.
First, starting superficially, there was Chris’s sense of fashion. Chris, like many of our pledge class, was from Piedmont. I recall thinking “what’s with all these guys from Piedmont? And what’s with the Khakis, penny loafers, and button down shirts?” Chris lived in the room across from mine, and it seemed he adopted this as his uniform. In hindsight, he helped guide us away from that dark time, that fashion faux pas known as the disco era.
Who knew Chris would work his timeless style for the next 34 years? And look at the effect he had on me!! Who’s wearing the button down NOW??? Thus my first life lesson from Chris: Stick with the classics; they won’t go out of style. HOWEVER, my wife Sally has gently advised me the definition of a classic look does not extend to certain flannel shirts from 1982…
The second example of a lesson learned involved a little culture, beyond the stereotypical fraternity life experience. I was lucky enough to room with Chris and another famous Piedmonter, Austin Tichenor. Talk about enlightenment! Chris promptly dubbed our large room on the second floor “the Triple Occupancy Club”. Little did I know, rooming with these high school friends came with the added bonus of an extracurricular education in the arts. Chris arrived with a stack of LPs , many courtesy of his stepdad Bob Commanday (the Chronicle’s music critic at the time). Austin contributed his eclectic collection of musical theatre and comedy recordings, and, well, himself. Nothing more need be said on that point…
Balancing out this urbane culture, Chris invited me on a trip to Grass Valley to visit Chris’s Grandpa, where we got to do a little gold panning from the “virgin” lode of dirt from under the basement—a lesson in the living history of the Stevens Family!
I’ll never forget what a great experience it was to live with these guys.
Everyone knows how brilliant Chris was; and how he demonstrated his intelligence in a truly enlightened manner. Chris was probably the smartest guy in the room, but he never comported himself that way. He was confident and outgoing, but never arrogant; always self effacing, always quick with a laugh or a grin, and always looking for ways to learn something from everyone around him. No surprise, considering Chris came from such good stock.
Chris studied Western Civilizations; and immersed himself in the cultures and languages he studied. He took multiple trips to study abroad—in Spain, France and Italy; and Morocco, when he joined the Peace Corps.
Perhaps most importantly, Chris knew how to relax, and enjoy the moment. When I would periodically freak out about my course work or some other problem, he’d make me stop, take a break, maybe play a game of backgammon on the balcony, and enjoy the view. Another early lesson in Zenlike Mindfulness from Chris. No wonder he excelled in such a challenging and stressful career.
But I don’t want you to think Chris was perfect. After extensive research we came up with at least one blemish on his record…sort of. The only time I ever saw Chris lose his temper was when we were sharing a double room our last year, and some less enlightened brothers decided to make a bunch of noise late at night during finals week. When yelling at these guys didn’t do the trick, Chris burst out of bed, went onto the balcony, grabbed a (water) fire extinguisher, and let them have it. He seemed much less angry when he came back into the room, and particularly pleased when the guys he drenched came up the stairs yelling MY name.
Ambassador Stevens did NOT bother to correct the record as to who was responsible, and I feel this is a rare example of a failed diplomatic effort on his part…but he did seem to sleep remarkably well afterward.
Another lesson offered by the Chris Stevens guide to Enlightenment involved his views on the value of things.
Chris did not care so much about things; except maybe when they were a means to an end: providing access to people, places, culture and activities he wanted to experience. Some examples from the archive:
His TYPEWRITER. Chris arrived at Cal with a fancy electric typewriter, a coveted object in that pre laptop/pre PC era. Chris decided that beautiful machine was too bulky to carry around, and he didn’t like being tethered to an electrical outlet. So one day he traded it in for a little Olivetti Manual typewriter. He was so proud of that little machine; he loved the satisfying tactile experience of using it, which he did very well.
His SHOES. As enlightened members of a fraternity, we threw an annual Great Gatsby Party. This was a major event, with live bands, a speakeasy in the basement, a pond and waterfall in the back; even a duck. Chris wanted to dress the part, and was delighted to find a snazzy pair of gaudy black and white wingtips at a thrift store which fit the bill. He seemed undeterred by the fact they were GOLF SPIKES and he would literally be cutting a rug. He simply unscrewed the spikes. Those floors needed refinishing anyway.
His COFFEE. Chris was one of the first people I knew in that pre-starbucks era who bought coffee beans and a little coffee maker to set up in our room. He insisted this was better than the rotgut in the kitchen, and I have to admit, he was right. Another example of Chris showing me how to live in the moment. And I laughed when I read Senator McCain’s recent remarks, recalling when Chris insisted on personally brewing the Senator a proper cup of cappuccino during their meetings in Libya.
His DONKEY. The picture of Chris on a Donkey made me laugh out loud, and reminded me of a priceless letter I received from Chris when he was there. Chris wrote wonderful notes filling us in on his experiences, and in this instance, he told us of a time he went running near the village where he was staying, only to have some locals run alongside and ask “where is it?” Where did it go?” Where is what? “your DONKEY. Where did it go? I don’t have a Donkey. Then why are you running? For Exercise. Exercise??? If you want some exercise, why don’t you come work in my orchard, you crazy American!
Chris succeeded because he knew how to laugh at himself, and how to relate to people around him.
Two more memories I have to share:
GOVERNMENT AND JAZZ
Chris always wanted to work for in the Foreign Service, and he first took the Foreign Service Exam during our days at Cal. He came back pleased with his results on the written exam, but felt he did not do so well on the Orals. He was perplexed by one question in particular: “Please compare American Government and Jazz Music”.
Chris told us he didn’t quite know how to handle this question, and my suggestion that maybe both forms involve people blowing their horn or banging on a drum was probably not helpful. We decided they must ask questions like this just to see how the applicant would react, to try to trip him up.
We didn’t have the Internet to find the answer, but we eventually figured it out. And even though Chris may not have come up with the answer during the exam, he certainly lived the message taught by this interesting comparison.
Both American Democracy and Jazz involve an ongoing experiment; both involve unscripted action and improvisation as we figure out the best way to get along ; both depend on a group allowing a soloist/representative to step forward and recite his piece, while the rest of the group provides background harmony and rhythm.
And when both forms work, the world is treated to a remarkable result, where ad hoc and seemingly dissonant voices become greater than the sum of their parts, and beautiful music literally and figuratively ensues.
We all know the amazing things Chris achieved when he led the way as America collaborated with the Libyan people and our allies to help them move toward greater freedoms and a representative form of government. The Middle East, and especially Libya, was Chris’ bandstand, and he knew all the members gained through collaboration and cultural exchange.
One last memory I must share, on a personal note: Our daughter Maggie was born in 1994 with profound, life threatening problems, and she required many surgeries and long hospitalizations during the first few years. The Chronicle ran a story about Maggie in 1996, and Chris’ mom, Mary, cut it out and sent it to Chris while he was posted in Cairo. Chris took time out from his duties to write us a thoughtful note expressing his concern and wishing us well, even commenting on how cute Maggie was. He closed the note as follows:
“As they say in this part of the world: “Rabbina Ya Sahel” (May Allah make things easier for you”)
And this is my wish for Chris’s family and friends today as we mourn his loss…
The world never saw a kinder, more resolute, and enlightened soul than Chris Stevens. His integrity and character, his empathy, courage and tolerance were ever present, and unchanging, even with all his success and fame, and in the face of every challenge. We feel so sad to have lost Chris; but so lucky to have known him. We will do everything we can to make sure his memory lives on, and to foster and support the kind of “people first” diplomacy he stood for and advocated, both at home and abroad.
VTL Chris, AND RABBINA YA SAHEL, MY OLD FRIEND.