Anne Smedinghoff, the young American diplomat who was killed Saturday while delivering textbooks to children in Afghanistan, left behind a long trail of people she had impressed with her passion, intelligence and poise, both in her career and while she was growing up near Chicago, in River Forest.
They included Secretary of State John Kerry, whom Smedinghoff shepherded around Afghanistan on a recent visit, a plum assignment that underscored her achievements and promise. "A selfless, idealistic young woman," Kerry said.
Her parents grieved for the "beautiful soul" they lost. "She was doing what she loved, and she was doing great things," said her father, Tom Smedinghoff. "We're just in total shock."
Smedinghoff, 25, a Fenwick High School graduate who grew up in River Forest, died along with four other Americans in what the State Department said was a Taliban attack in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. Smedinghoff and the other victims were traveling in a convoy of vehicles when a bomb exploded, according to the State Department.
"A brave American was determined to brighten the light of learning through books written in the native tongue of students that she had never met, but whom she felt compelled to help," Kerry said, according to a State Department transcript of his remarks. "She was met by cowardly terrorists determined to bring darkness and death to total strangers."
By all accounts, Smedinghoff had yet to reach her full potential.
After graduating from Fenwick, Smedinghoff attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. After college, she went into the U.S. foreign service, according to her parents, who issued a statement saying she began her diplomatic career in Caracas, Venezuela.
They said she volunteered for the position in Afghanistan, where "she particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work directly with the Afghan people and was always looking for opportunities to reach out and help to make a difference in the lives of those living in a country ravaged by war."
Her father said Kerry called him Saturday morning to let him know what had happened to his daughter.
"She was one of the people who was helping to coordinate his visit. She got to meet him," her father said. "He spoke glowingly of the work she's been doing. He spoke very highly of her. It was very good to hear."
Tom Smedinghoff said he only knew a few details of the last moments of her life.
"She was in a convoy … somebody with a car or a truck laden with explosives rammed into her vehicle or somebody close and detonated and killed everybody," he said.
As a diplomat in Afghanistan, she was working in the public diplomacy department, he said. She focused on helping women and working with schools and local businesses.
"She was living in a compound that was heavily fortified, and she was always trying to get out and do things for the population," her father said.
His daughter had a "passion for the work she was doing," he said. "She really felt she was making a difference."
She came home during the Christmas holidays, and her father said he last spoke with her on Easter Sunday.
"She sounded so upbeat and so positive and so excited about all the work she'd been doing," he said. "She was telling us about Kerry's visit."
Anne Smedinghoff grew up in River Forest and had one brother and two younger sisters, her father said. She was always a "very self confident and very intelligent young woman," he said.
Dave and Annemarie Valenti said they first met Anne Smedinghoff, whom everyone on her parents' tight-knit block called Annie, when she was in second grade.
She grew into a beautiful woman and was a natural leader, even at an early age, she said. "You knew she'd be a great adult," Dave Valenti said.
She would set up the "ghost in the graveyard" game or make the peace when other kids were scrapping, they said. "She was always the first one to drag out the lemonade stand table in the summer," said Annemarie Valenti, 54, a mother of four whose eldest daughter was close in age to Smedinghoff.
Early on, Smedinghoff found an affinity with international affairs, government and policy, family and friends said.
Her aunt, Cathy Tokarski, said Smedinghoff would read The New York Times' Week in Review section as a 12-year-old.
Attending a top-tier college such as Johns Hopkins and making it through the arduous Foreign Service Office application process never went to her head, said Tokarski, who lives in Oak Park.
"She did great things, but you would hear about it from other people," Tokarski said. "She wasn't going to hold court on how great she was."
Smedinghoff was soft-spoken, so sometimes "you didn't know how things registered," Tokarski said.
Her grandfather died of colon cancer when she was about 11, Tokarski said. Years later, she biked across the country and raised money for cancer research, Tokarski said.
She thought about pursuing law school but ultimately decided on the foreign service because it aligned with her goals and beliefs, said Allison Bresnahan, 25, a friend.
While in Venezuela, she didn't hesitate to apply to the post in Kabul and was "over the moon" when she learned she got the spot, friends said.
She loved to travel and her dream, they said, was to help people and improve their lives.
"She always said the places that needed her the most were the places that were the scariest or most dangerous," said Julie Whiting, 26, another friend of Smedinghoff's.
Life in Kabul meant spending most of her time inside the site's compound, where she had been running laps indoors to train for a marathon.
Smedinghoff loved a physical challenge, friends said. Last month, she rode her bike with friends from the Dead Sea in Israel to the Red Sea in Jordan, said Chris Louie, a friend from college.
In Afghanistan, off-compound trips, like the one Saturday, were rare, but exciting and something to which she looked forward, her family and friends said.
"She said it was the most demanding assignment, but it was the most rewarding," said Bresnahan, who was set to travel around Italy with Smedinghoff later this month. "She was learning more there than any of her other posts combined."
Smedinghoff, who often worked 18-hour days in Kabul, "was hitting her stride" during the past few weeks, her aunt said.
"Those last couple of weeks had been such a peak experience for her, with all the advance work she had done for Secretary Kerry," Tokarski said.
Algeria was to be the next stop for Smedinghoff, who planned to return to the U.S. in July and learn Arabic.
In the family's River Forest neighborhood Sunday afternoon, Mary Fitch, 50, who said she lives down the street from the Smedinghoffs, said everyone who lives on the block is close and devastated by the news.
Neighbors decided to adorn the block with flags and ribbons Saturday afternoon, Fitch said.
Smedinghoff was largely out of the house when Fitch's family moved in five years ago. But the 25-year-old was "always a hello, always a bright smile, always polite," she said.
Fitch said Smedinghoff's death personalizes a faraway war now more than a decade old.
"Now it's someone on the block," she said. "Now it's someone you know."
Tribune reporter Dawn Rhodes contributed.