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Slain ambassador's mom: 'He was trying to do something much bigger'

Ben Curtis / AP file

U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, pictured here in April when he was a U.S. envoy, attends meetings at the Tibesty Hotel where an African Union delegation was meeting with opposition leaders in Benghazi, Libya. His mother remembered him for his toothy grin and love of meeting people and hearing their stories.

When Chris Stevens was in high school, he would regularly chat with an Iraqi neighbor, who happened to be a State Department retiree. They discussed his job, the work, politics and even mundane neighborhood details, like gardening. Really, just about everything.

It wasn't unusual: Stevens was often out in the neighborhood. He liked to run or play tennis and enjoyed striking up conversations with strangers and learning their life stories. It was then that his neighbor nicknamed the affable teen, “ambassador.”

Perhaps the neighbor was clairvoyant. But for those who knew him, it wasn't hard to picture.

Thirty years later, Stevens, 52, died as the U.S. ambassador to Libya, a job he had been promoted to in May following a two-decade career in the U.S. Foreign Service. He, along with three other embassy workers, were killed on Sept. 11 during what the White House is now calling a terrorist attack. He was the first U.S. ambassador to be killed since 1979.

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On Thursday, Stevens’ mother, Mary Commanday, 75, and his stepfather, Robert Commanday, 90, sat down with NBC Bay Area during their first on-camera interview at their Oakland home. The Commandays, who have been together 36 years, shared their memories of a diplomat the world has come to know as a man with a human touch, a toothy grin and a passion for the people he worked with in the Middle East.

“He was trying to do something much bigger. His death was about America's relationship with other countries," said Mary Commanday, a retired Marin Symphony cellist.

His parents have been touched by the outpouring of respect for a man whom many felt represented trust and democracy. The Commandays have more than 100 letters in a box at home from people wishing them well. They said that the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow held a vigil for Stevens, an old friend. Musicians in Frankfurt and Bremen, Germany held a concert in honor of him, the Commandays said.

And on the night after her son’s death, President Barack Obama called them. Mary Commanday said friends and family were over when someone called out: The president was on the phone.

“I stood up and got up from the couch,” Mary Commanday said. “I thought that was probably the right thing to do.”

She recalled hearing the president’s voice, which “sounded just like it does on TV,” and that he expressed his condolences. She can’t remember much of what else he said.

“I wasn’t in a state to talk,” she said. “But I wasn’t surprised. Chris was doing a job that was important to the president.”

It was a job that in many ways was a natural fit. 

“He was born smiling,” said Robert Commanday, a former music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. “He never stopped.”

Robert Commanday recalled Stevens’ easily striking up conversations with their late neighbor, Joe Katosh, the Iraqi neighbor who dubbed his stepson “Ambassadaor.”

“In 20 minutes, Chris would meet someone and know their whole life story,” Robert Commanday said.

Stevens was a student at Piedmont High School at the time, and was quick to embrace all people.

His mother suggested he try out for the American Foreign Service, a club that propelled him to do a Spain homestay. In Spain, he became interested in the culture clash between the Spanish and the Basques.

Stevens studied history at the University of California in Berkeley, graduating in 1982. Then two years in the Peace Corps, where he learned Berber, a North African language, followed seven years later by a law degree at UC Hastings in San Francisco. Along the way, Stevens learned Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic.

He landed at a job at the prestigious Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro law firm in San Francisco, where he worked in international trade law. The firm moved him to D.C. where, in the 1990s, he transitioned from corporate law to government work.

No one can pinpoint exactly when Stevens decided to become a foreign diplomat. But they say he took after his grandfather, Elmer Ellsworth Stevens, a beloved, congenial man in Grass Valley, Calif., encouraged by many to run for State Assembly, the Commandays said, but who declined to remain a high school civics teacher.

The Commandays learned of Stevens’ death while vacationing in Yosemite. The State Department couldn’t reach them, so their daughter, Anne, 49, a pediatric rheumatologist in Seattle, called to tell them he died. The couple took a train to come home to meet their youngest son, Tom, 47, an assistant U.S. Attorney in San Francisco. They all flew to a service held at the Air Force base in Maryland, where Stevens’ father, Jan Stevens, a retired California assistant attorney general who lives in Loomis, Calif., also attended.

While Chris Stevens had many “lady friends,” his mother said, including women in other countries whose mothers baked him casseroles, he never married or had children.

The Commandays have no anger toward the Libyan people over Stevens’ death, and they remarked at how many Muslims and Arabs have written letters voicing their sadness. The couple said that the largest number of condolence cards that have come into the State Department are from Palestinians, people that Stevens knew when he was stationed in Jerusalem working mostly in the West Bank.

One such person is “Ibrahim,” who wrote in on www.rememberingchrisstevens.com, set up by his sister and some friends. Ibrahim, who said he worked for the U.S. Consulate General, wrote that he refused to believe that his friend was gone, and that he longed to have a “social cigarette” with his pal.

The Commandays have refused to watch the “Innocence of Muslims,” an amateur trailer mocking the Prophet Muhammad, which is what some speculate may have sparked the ire of some Libyans, and now Muslims across the world.

For now, the Commandays are finding a bit of solace in the fact that despite a pocket of horrific violence, Stevens’ death has become a turning point for hope and peace. As a mother, Mary Commanday said she can’t dwell in sadness, that she must be proud of her son and his work.

“How can anyone place blame for his death?” Mary Commanday said. “These were circumstances beyond our government’s control. I am perfectly aware that there was danger. But he was a grown man, well-educated and careful. I knew he was out there doing good work. And as a mother, I had to make up my mind to be fine with it.”

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