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US Ambassador Stevens laid to rest Friday in Grass Valley

Christopher Rosacker
Staff Writer

Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed during a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was interred to his final resting place Friday morning at a cemetery in Grass Valley — the city where he was born.

Bathed in sunshine amid the bright autumn colors of the Sierra Nevada foothills, nearly 30 family members and close friends gathered at a family plot to bid farewell to the slain emissary, said Ellen Gibson, a relative and local resident.

“It was short, it was lovely and very private, and he was surrounded by his loved ones,” Gibson said. “It was absolutely wonderful.”

Friday’s burial was the second observance of the ambassador’s passing. A highly publicized memorial for Stevens took place Oct. 16 under the dome at San Francisco City Hall where family members and government officials mourned his passing. Another service will take place later this fall in Washington, D.C., according to a memorial website set up by his family.

“I think he felt a bond to Nevada County, an identity, and really appreciated the history and had ancestors who were part of the community.”
— Jan Stevens,
on son Chris Stevens

“A number of Stevens are buried there,” said Jan Stevens, the ambassador’s father. “His grandfather and great-grandfather were buried there. His mother and I agreed it was the appropriate thing to do.”

The California native reportedly died during an attack on the Benghazi consulate on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Also killed in the consulate attack were a State Department computer expert and two security agents who were former Navy SEALs.

The events surrounding Stevens’ death are at the heart of ongoing congressional hearings in the nation’s capital. But in Grass Valley, Friday was not a day focused on the controversy.

“It was for his family to say goodbye,” Gibson said. “That’s what it was about.”

Stevens and his two younger siblings were born in Grass Valley, where he would frequently return in his youth to visit his grandparents, Elmer and Marguerite Stevens, even though his father’s work as California’s assistant attorney general took him to the Bay Area.

“Chris loved Nevada County. He spent many happy days swimming in the Yuba (River), skiing at Donner Summit, jogging the trails and hiking with us,” Jan Stevens said. “It was a formative part of his life. I think he felt a bond to Nevada County, an identity, and really appreciated the history and had ancestors who were part of the community.”

Elmer “Chief” Stevens was a well known history and speech teacher at Grass Valley High School before it consolidated with Nevada City High School and became Nevada Union High School. His grandmother, Marguerite Stevens, taught Spanish and physical education at Nevada City High School.

“Chris’ grandfather was very outgoing. His trips through the county with his grandkids were punctuated by stops to chat with his numerous friends and exchange ‘Cousin Jack’ stories,” said Jan Stevens. “We like to think it was this example that led Chris to be so friendly and accessible on the Libyan streets.”

Stevens, 52, moved to Davis soon after his birth and began his education at Pioneer Elementary School before moving to Piedmont, outside Oakland, where he attended high school. He graduated from Berkeley in 1982 after majoring in history.

“Elmer’s father and grandfather were Cornish miners, and my dad had an abiding interest in California history that inspired him to co-found the Nevada County Historical Society,” said Jan Stevens. “I believe it was that that gave Chris the interest in history and world affairs that led to his history degree at Berkeley.”

The ambassador’s father and mother, Mary Commanday, a retired Marin Symphony cellist who reportedly still has a Nevada City home, also obtained Berkeley degrees, according to the school’s website.

As a young man, Stevens joined the Peace Corps and taught English in Morocco.

In his opening remarks to the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 25, President Barack Obama said it was in North Africa that Stevens came to love and respect the people of that region and the Middle East.

“He would carry that commitment throughout his life,” said President Obama in the U.N. speech in which he referenced Grass Valley.

“As a diplomat, (Stevens) worked from Egypt to Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Libya. He was known for walking the streets of the cities where he worked — tasting the local food, meeting as many people as he could, speaking Arabic, listening with a broad smile,” Obama said.

Arriving via a cargo ship, Stevens went to Benghazi in the early days of the Libyan revolution and was subsequently appointed as U.S. ambassador to that country in May.

“As America’s representative, he helped the Libyan people as they coped with violent conflict, cared for the wounded and crafted a vision for the future in which the rights of all Libyans would be respected,” Obama said. “And after the revolution, (Stevens) supported the birth of a new democracy, as Libyans held elections and built new institutions and began to move forward after decades of dictatorship.”

Two weeks before the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Stevens traveled there to review plans to establish a new cultural center and modernize a hospital.

“In many ways, he never left Nevada County or the (Sierra),” said Jan Stevens. “I think he intended to come back some day.”

An inmate work crew from the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility outside Nevada City attended to the Grass Valley cemetery prior to Friday’s interment, said Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal.

“We were so glad to be able to help out,” Royal said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to give back to the family.”

The Daughters of the American Revolution also provided flowers to the ceremony.

“We are extremely grateful for their contributions,” said Jan Stevens of both agencies.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the J. Christopher Stevens Fund by visiting http://www.rememberingchrisstevens.com

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email crosacker@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4236.

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