UCLA Alumni Remember Their Mentor, Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher

Drawn to the university honors program by the caliber of its students, Christopher taught a small, student-focused seminar that discussed international hot spots and possible policy solutions.

By Samantha Masunaga for The Daily Bruin

Warren Christopher, former U.S. secretary of state and visiting scholar at UCLA, died on March 18 from complications of bladder and kidney cancer. He was 85.

After a diplomatic career in three presidents’ administrations, Christopher called UCLA in 2002 in hopes of teaching an Honors Collegium class.

Drawn to the university honors program by the caliber of its students, Christopher made arrangements with G. Jennifer Wilson, assistant vice provost for the UCLA Honors Programs, to create a small, student-focused seminar that discussed international hot spots and possible policy solutions.

Students chose locations or world situations in which they were interested and then argued different aspects of the crisis.

Throughout the debate, Christopher allowed his students to lead the discussion, adding his own opinion only when conversation ceased.

“He was a gentle-speaking man,” Wilson said. “He never raised his voice.”

Because of his mild manner, students felt comfortable around the statesman, who insisted that his students call him Chris.

“He was so kind and warm … that it felt like you were just having a conversation with a really smart man,” said Michael Williams, a UCLA alumnus and current lawyer at Christopher’s firm, O’Melveny & Myers.

While students benefited from Christopher’s practical experience in diplomacy and his personal anecdotes about world leaders and situations, they also valued his lessons about values and public service.

“He was the living embodiment of Atticus Finch,” said Laura Perry, a UCLA alumna who currently works at O’Melveny & Myers, in reference to the deep-thinking, conscientious protagonist of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In this vein, Christopher opened each class with a discussion of current events from The New York Times, encouraging students to think about the various historical, geographical and cultural facets behind every policy decision.

Even after the seminar, Christopher continued to advise students, counseling them on graduate schools and internship opportunities, as well as writing numerous letters of recommendation.

Students spoke of his ability to see their strengths and weaknesses, of which they were unaware. Sometimes, this translated into new career paths, said Tim Schulz, a UCLA alumnus who discovered his passion for business technology rather than law through Christopher’s influence.

“I realized I wouldn’t be happy in law,” said Schulz, who now works for Google. “I don’t think I would be where I was today without his counsel.”

Christopher was born on Oct. 27, 1925, in Scranton, N.D. He came to California with his family in the late 1930s and graduated from Hollywood High School. At 16, he continued his education at the University of Redlands on a debate scholarship, though he later transferred to the University of Southern California, where he took part in the Naval Officer Program. After active naval service during World War II, Christopher attended Stanford Law School before being placed in an active clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

In 1950, he joined the O’Melveny & Myers law firm in Century City, a corporation he would be involved with for the rest of his life. During his time at the firm, he was frequently called away to serve on a number of political administrations, including former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. It was during the Carter administration that Christopher gained great recognition for his negotiations during the Iranian hostage crisis.

In 1993, he was tapped by former President Bill Clinton to serve as the 63rd secretary of state, and in this position, Christopher promoted the expansion of NATO and a 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. During his tenure, Christopher traveled more than 700,000 miles, setting a new record for the air mileage achieved in four years by any secretary of state.

After retirement from diplomacy, Christopher played a role in local politics and headed an investigation of the 1991 Rodney King incident. The ensuing commission, which gave a number of recommendations to the city of Los Angeles, was named after him.

Christopher is survived by his second wife Marie; four children Lynn, Scott, Thomas and Kristen; and five grandchildren. A memorial service was held Monday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2011