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Think of her as a girl

Deceased diplomat was a person first

Published: Thursday, April 11, 2013 9:33 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Before she was a young U.S. foreign service officer stationed in Afghanistan, before she and others were blown up by a bomb, before she was eulogized at Fenwick High School on Tuesday, Anne Smedinghoff was a girl.

The temptation now is to see her only as some iconic figure, a young diplomat in a dangerous place, a brave American woman bringing books to Afghan schoolchildren, organizing a women’s soccer team, learning the ways of that hard and heartbreaking country.

Certainly there is all that, but think of her as a girl.

A girl who was a voracious reader, a girl with a lively and curious mind. The kind of girl who was bright, and wasn’t afraid of her intelligence or the obligations of that intelligence, a girl who wanted to learn about everything.

“I’ll tell you what kind of girl Anne was,” former neighbor Annemarie Valenti told me. “She would baby-sit our kids. She was a few years older than our children, she lived across the street. And she’d come over, turn off the TV, and they’d have adventures.

“We’d come home later to see all the pillows had been taken down from the couches. Why? She’d build forts with them and they’d have adventures. My children were excited every time she came over, because she did that sort of thing with them. She was creative. She read. She was curious. She had a lively mind.

“She’d read biographies, novels, she was curious about everything. She was simply awesome, and there are so very few people like that.”

Perhaps you’ve known a baby sitter like that, a girl who shows up at your door prepared and involved. Or perhaps you’ve known a boy like that, again a reader, some 12-year-old bouncing a basketball, while telling you about Epaminondas and the Battle of Leuctra or some odd facts about Leonardo da Vinci or, say, the March of the Ten Thousand.

What kind of child becomes a foreign service officer? That kind of child.

And as they grow older, the best ones don’t wear the titles of books or the authors as cheap totems or flashy badges to impress others. And they don’t hide behind books or wall themselves off as if they were trapped in the Hollywood cliche of a bookworm.

The opposite is always true. Curiosity goads people into turning the pages of books, as it later propels them out into the world. They have no choice, really. They’re compelled.

Anne Smedinghoff, 25, a Fenwick graduate, grew up in River Forest and majored in foreign relations at Johns Hopkins University. She joined the U.S. State Department, was posted to Venezuela and later transferred to Afghanistan.

She and others were traveling in a convoy in Zabul province when a bomb exploded, killing them. I called Susan R. Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents more than 30,000 active and retired diplomats and other federal employees. She told me Tuesday that for a diplomat, curiosity is essential.

“There’s always been a core of the foreign service that shares that character and mindset,” Johnson said. “Curiosity about the world. Curiosity about other people. Curiosity is a characteristic of the mental makeup of most natural diplomats.

“The career is an enormous opportunity to serve your country, to experience nations and new sites, and in some way or another to participate in history that influences events. To know, for example, you were there when the Berlin Wall fell.”

Johnson did not know Smedinghoff.

“But she was clearly an impressive and well-respected young woman, esteemed by her colleagues in her two posts. And she had that kind of curiosity, to get out of the compound at Kabul and see things. And to be assigned as a control officer when Secretary of State John Kerry was there. It is a sign that a young officer shows a lot of promise. She had that.”

At Fenwick, Richard Borsch, associate principal of student services, helped me see her not as the two-tour diplomat but as the young runner who would become that person.

“She was a cross-country runner,” Borsch said. “So think of her that way, those girls 14-18 years old, running alone. That particular sport often produces some of the best students. Perhaps it’s all the discipline, the routine, the attention to detail when training.”

Borsch told me of other parents who often ask him whether their child belongs at a top university.

“They ask, and you can’t help but think of that ideal student, the kid walking around campus with two paperback books in their pockets, and they’re not required reading,” Borsch said.

“That’s the kind of kid she was. She wasn’t someone openly advertising how bright she was, but she was that bright. And being that bright, she lit up the room.”

The memorial held Tuesday in the Fenwick auditorium was somber. Her teachers told the students that Smedinghoff was spurred to national service by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Anne would have been about 14, a freshman taking honors English and history, when al-Qaida terrorists — harbored by the same Taliban that would later kill her — used hijacked airliners to attack the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon.

She became deeply involved in the world of ideas, because she learned early on that ideas do have consequence. She became an officer in the school’s International Relations Club. She loved mock trials. She had by all accounts a stellar career at Johns Hopkins, or she wouldn’t have been accepted into the State Department.

And last December she returned to Fenwick, to speak to students about her career.

“Teachers are supposed to inspire students, but most teachers quickly realize the reverse is true,” said Irene Drago, Smedinghoff’s Spanish teacher. “Anne inspired me.”

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at jskass@tribune.com.

©2013 Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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