Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens
Austin Tichenor is an actor, author, and co-artistic director of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. On April 18, 2013, Austin gave a speech at the Center for Civic Mediation in Los Angeles, where his close friend Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was posthumously honored with the Lewis M. Brown Conflict Prevention Award seven months after his tragic passing during the attacks on the Libyan Embassy in Benghazi. Stevens and Tichenor shared a deep bond that began with high school theater productions and solidified when they roomed together and joined the same fraternity at Cal. They remained close despite being separated by continents and time zones, and in the time since Stevens’s passing, Tichenor has recorded and written several pieces honoring him. Tichenor has graciously let us use his words from that April 2013 speech for this alumni spotlight. (A full audio version is available here.)
“If you want to talk about the man Chris was, you have to talk about the family he came from. He is the son of lawyers and artists. His mother plays the cello and his father is an environmental lawyer who puts the ‘do’ in ‘do-gooder.’ 32 years ago tonight, when Chris and I were roommates together at the University of California, Berkeley, we shared our 21st birthday together. Mary and Bob Commanday, Chris’s mom and stepfather, showed up at our fraternity house at midnight with my parents. They had brought pizza and beer for the entire house. Chris always knew how to honor an occasion, and he learned it from these people. Can you believe, that was the first time we ever had beer?!
I met John Christopher Stevens at Piedmont High School in Northern California. Chris and his family moved to Piedmont when we were juniors. He quickly made an impact both socially and academically. He was disgustingly handsome — blond-haired, blue-eyed — and had a seemingly effortless rapport with the ladies. He was a terrific athlete who played tennis and skied. He was a musician who sang and played the saxophone. He was the editor-in-chief of the high school paper, and was also a member of AFS, the American Field Service, which organizes student foreign exchange programs. It allowed Chris to spend the summer before his senior year in Spain. You know, just another typical, underachieving high school student. I love the AFS page in our 1977 yearbook because there is a picture of Chris, and underneath it is one of the understatements of the century. It says, “This summer, Chris Stevens will be living abroad.” Chris spent almost the next 35 years living abroad.
Our paths crossed regularly in the Piedmont High music and theater departments where we performed together in the definitive high school productions of Music Man and The Mikado. But I really got to know Chris when we both rushed the ATO fraternity at Cal. That’s when I first really witnessed the Chris Stevens Charm in action, and I began to see the seeds of the diplomat he would eventually become. I went into these parties nervous, thinking I would have to tell them all about me — how fabulous and interesting I am — but Chris took a different approach. He was poised, confident, talking sincerely and enthusiastically about his interests and activities. But then, he would always quickly and smoothly turn the conversation around and ask the ATO guys about their interests and their activities. Everybody loves talking about themselves, but everybody loves the guy who asks, “Hey, tell me about you.”
But I don’t want you to get the wrong impression — Chris could also be a goofball. We had a shared love of Monty Python albums, movies, and Tom Lehrer songs. Yes, he was confident and outgoing, but he was also self-deprecating — a quick and ready laugher who enjoyed seeing the absurdities of college life. But as I said, he loved a sense of occasion, whether it was taking a date to the symphony or dressing up for ATO’s annual Great Gatsby party. There is a picture of the two of us from one of the Gatsby parties in which Chris is absolutely rocking an ascot. Not many guys can get away with an ascot, or even should, really — but Chris could and definitely did. I guess at some level, I thought Chris was perfect for the foreign service because they wear tuxedos and white dinner jackets every day, don’t they?
But one thing I never understood was Chris’s love of running. I am an actor — I love staying up late and sleeping even later. But no matter how late Chris stayed up studying, he was always up early going for a jog. This was true for his entire life — whether it was in the hills of Berkeley or the olive groves of Libya, he loved his daily run. We were both history majors at Cal. But while I was a double major in drama, it seemed like Chris was a double major in everything else. I think Chris took a course in just about every department on campus — English, drama, economics, forestry, urban development, logic, philosophy, art history, geology, Italian — I’m sure there are many I’ve forgotten. Chris was the walking embodiment of the liberal arts ideal. His knowledge was broad and deep; his curiosity was limitless. And by the time he left Cal, he was a renaissance man who could talk to anybody about anything in any part of the world. I directed three musicals at Cal, and gave Chris a part in all of them because, first of all, the guy loved playing dress-up and putting on costumes; you’ve got to use that. Just like every aspect of his life, he was poised, confident, and unflappable. He was not a prima donna; he was a team player. He could step downstage for his solo moment and then step back upstage to be a member of the ensemble. Later, of course, Chris joined the Peace Corps and the Foreign Service, and stepped out on the world stage. And when he did, the American community theater lost a valuable character man and second baritone.
Chris and I roomed together for two years at Cal and in our junior year, we had a third roommate, Steve McDonald. Steve refers to Chris as a ‘jazz diplomat.’ Chris loved the give-and-take of jazz, and the analogy to diplomacy and jazz seems strong to me. Both involve a solid structure and natural progressions, and complete command of the notes you’re supposed to play. But both also involve improvisation, requiring the players to listen to each other, give each other respect, and let each person step forward and have their moment while the others provide support and counterpoint. It’s all about communication. Jazz is also about the notes you don’t play. Chris also knew about the power of silence, when he would sit quietly sipping coffee while waiting for a colleague or adversary to reveal the information Chris needed.
Everybody liked Chris. Everybody. He was always the guy who said ‘yes.’ If I said, ‘Hey, let’s put on a show!’ he said, ‘yes.’ If the fraternity said, ‘Hey let’s put on a themed party and dress up and wear an ascot!’ Chris said, ‘yes.’ If anyone said, ‘Let’s go to an exotic restaurant or foreign country where none of us know the food or speak the language!’ Chris said, ‘yes.’ He was fearless. In the theater, this is how you build scenes through improvisation — by agreeing and being in consensus with your fellow actors. It’s how you build friends in life. It’s how you build nations and diplomacy. Chris commanded respect by giving respect.
I miss Chris every day. I miss his insight into world affairs. I miss the feeling the world is a better, safer place with him in it. I have been very moved by the testimonials I have heard from those who met and worked with him since the years I got to know him at Cal. They all, without exception, describe the same outgoing, optimistic, cheerful, romantic person I knew. He still had that same big, goofy grin and the infectious sense of humor that captivated everyone who knew him around the world. He still took his work seriously without taking himself seriously. He still loved running, still could pull off an ascot. And despite every reason not to be, he remained optimistic that the world could be a better place.
I’m not a religious person. I generally don’t look to ancient texts for enlightenment, except for possibly Shakespeare and, every once in a while, Star Trek. But, like everyone else, I sometimes need guidance, and in the last seven months since Chris died, in moments of stress or anger, I have asked myself WWJD — What Would John Christopher Stevens do? I know he would take a breath, take a step back, take a run, sip some coffee, sip some sherry, watch a sunset, listen to some music, possibly a little Coltrane playing “A Night in Tunisia” but more likely some ’80s soft rock. And he would remind me that there are more good guys than bad guys. We have more in common than we don’t have in common. We need to be diligent and better at communicating our point of view and we do best and get the best results when we listen to and engage with the other guy’s point of view.
I’m so glad my children got to meet a real hero in Chris Stevens. Real heroes don’t wear capes; sometimes they wear running shoes. Or an ascot.”
In photo: Chris Stevens and Austin Tichenor at their History graduation in 1982