She was `light in all our lives'

TRAGEDY: Amy Biehl's friends from O.C. to South Africa mourn the loss of the slain Newport Beach woman who inspired them.

August 27, 1993


The Orange County Register

She was South African and black. Her prospective roommate was a Southern Californian and white.

Melanie Jacobs wasn't sure she liked the idea of sharing her Cape Town home with Amy Elizabeth Biehl.

"I pictured the proverbial pushy American," said Jacobs, a special-projects manager at the University of the Western Cape, where Biehl was studying on a Fulbright scholarship.

"I didn't get that. I got a sister and a friend and another parent for my daughter. ... Amy had so much light in all of our lives. She was the best thing that ever happened to me in all of my life."

Jacobs' voice joined a chorus of others Thursday in mourning Biehl, a Newport Beach resident slain near Cape Town on Wednesday by a mob of militant black youths.

From California to Washington, D.C., to the southern reaches of Africa, she was remembered in similarly glowing terms by those who had lived and worked with her.

In Cape Town, more than 1,000 people gathered in shared sorrow at a memorial service to pay their respects.

In Newport Beach, her parents' phone rang relentlessly, friends and colleagues from around the world calling in their condolences, a fax machine spitting out a virtually endless stream of written sympathy.

Huddled on a living room couch, Peter and Linda Biehl and their three other children shared their thoughts about a woman who by all accounts had lived an extraordinary 26 years.

Sometimes choking back tears, sometimes smiling fondly at something Amy Biehl had said or done, the Biehls and Amy's surviving siblings _ Kim, 27, Molly, 23, and Zach, 16 _ said they wished only to celebrate her life.

"We made the decision that we want her work and her beliefs _ her anti-violence beliefs _ to be heard," Linda Biehl said. "We're doing this out of love and respect for her."

She said her daughter had been a "a little dynamo" from the get-go, announcing as a sixth-grader that she would be the first woman president.

Her daughter was an athlete, musician and drum major while earning straight A's at Santa Fe High School in New Mexico, where the family lived before moving to Orange County in 1985.

She was a champion diver at Stanford University, where she earned a degree in international relations, and later a champion of human rights who reminded her older sister, Kim, that "one person has the power to change many."

"We were told that when she was killed her look was of disbelief, not fear," Kim Biehl said. "That explains her whole (reason for) being there. ... She trusted, and she cared, and she felt that she belonged."

Articulate and intelligent, Amy Biehl also was down-to-earth, her family said. As comfortable with diplomats as she was with her boyfriend, a law student in Oregon whom she had met at Stanford.

"You could discuss issues with Amy for hours," her father said with a smile. "But you could also pound beers and dance with her."

Above all, her parents and siblings said, she abhorred violence and would not want them to be angry about her slaying.

"What is done is done," said her brother, Zach, 16. "Everyone needs to move on and make things better. Revenge would not make things right."

Rick Schavone, coach of the Stanford women's diving team, remembered Biehl as a freshman walk-on who worked so hard and improved so much that she was named team captain her senior year.

"In my 18 years in this profession, Amy Biehl was the most outstanding person I've ever coached," Schavone said.

Biehl lacked the natural talent of some other divers, he said, but none tried harder. He spoke about her in lectures, using her as "an inspirational tool for others," Schavone said.

"I can't tell you how sad I feel," he said.

After graduating from Stanford in 1989, Biehl spent some time in Africa and then headed to Washington, D.C., to put her academic training to work.

In September 1990 she landed on the doorstep of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, whose mandate is to promote democracy in emerging nations, said executive officer Sean Carroll.

"She knew she wanted to come and make a difference, and she knew she was interested in women's rights, democracy and international affairs," Carroll said.

But unlike most who land jobs at the institute on the recommendations of others, Biehl "got a job on her own merits and idealism," he said. She quickly proved herself to be a "shining star" _ sincere, committed, at once innocent and well-informed, ready and able to do the work at hand, he said.

"It's hard to put into words, but there aren't too many academics who have the personality and appearance she does," he said. "She's bright, attractive, exuberant, friendly, and at the same time she is a serious academic who has done a lot of work."

He paused, then added, "And it didn't hurt that everyone just loved her instantly."

The institute, which is affiliated with the Democratic party, assists emerging democracies with elections and legislative training programs. Biehl helped develop programs for a half-dozen nations, including Namibia, Zambia, Botwswana, Pakistan and Guyana, Carroll said.

Biehl had been in Namibia when that nation declared indepence in 1989, and then returned in 1990 with Carroll to help train new legislators in parliamentary procedures.

"There aren't too many people who can participate in the birth of a nation, but she did," Carroll said.

Restless to return to Africa, Biehl applied for and won a Fulbright exchange scholarship to study in South Africa, one of 25 Americans who did so last year.

A friend and colleague there, Randi Erentzen , director of the Center of Development Studies at the University of the Western Cape, had first met her in February 1991 on a previous trip.

Together that year they traveled into black townships to educate people about registering to vote.

"I don't think Amy had real fears," Erentzen said. "Going into a township is often not the most dangerous thing you could be doing. She could have had an accident on any of our roads on any day. It is just unfortunate that she had to die in this very tragic way in one of our townships."

Erentzen said Biehl worked for the Community Law Center and Gender Equity Unit at the university. She researched questions of women's role in South Africa and in particular studied how gender equality could be incorporated in a South African constitution. And she was popular.

"The reason that people loved her was that she was a good listener," Erentzen said.

More than 1,000 people attended a memorial service at the university and then held a vigil at the site of her slaying in black Guguletu township. Students placed flowers on a fence to cover up her bloodstains that remained.

Biehl had traveled into the black townships often before. She was careful, her roommate Melanie Jacobs said, but more concerned about her friends than her own safety.

"I'm crying for this country," Jacobs said. "We're in such trouble. We need a few million more Amys."


Amy Elizabeth Biehl

Born: April 26, 1967, in Santa Monica.

Education: 1985 graduate of Santa Fe (N.M.) High School; 1989 graduate of Stanford University with degree in international relations; captain of diving team. 1992-93 Fulbright Scholarship to study gender equality, election processes and constitutional issues in South Africa. Had planned to resume studies Monday at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Employment: Program assistant for National Democratic Institute for International Studies in Washington, D.C., 1990-92.

Family: Parents, Peter and Linda Biehl of Newport Beach; sisters, Kim, 27, Molly, 23; brother, Zach, 16. Father is a business consultant, mother is a manager at a department store.