Slain diplomat from River Forest was a girl with an adventurous mind

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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.

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