R. Sargent Shriver, the founding director of the Peace Corps, Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1972, Kennedy in-law, the visionary leader of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, died Tuesday, January 18, at the age of 95.
A New York Times obituary of Shriver details his many, many accomplishments—he was also ambassador to France in the late 1960′s and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1994—and also his ‘complex’ relationship with his Kennedy in-laws.
As Scott Stossel wrote in his 2004 biography, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, the Kennedys “buoyed him up to heights and achievements he would never otherwise have attained — and they held him back, thwarting his political advancement.” A 2004 PBS documentary about Shriver was entitled American Idealist and portrayed him as investing “a string of social initiatives that shaped an era and dared millions of young Americans to live out their ideals.”
Shriver was, as the Washington Post describes him, “an influential public servant” and figure who bridged the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. While Shriver was never elected to any national office, his “impact on American life was significant,” through his directing of the Peace Corps and, under President Johnson, of the Office of Economic Opportunity. This office agency created such antipoverty programs as Head Start, the Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America, the Community Action Program and Legal Services for the Poor.
Diagnosed in 2003 with Alzheimer’s, Shriver was seldom seen in public in the past couple of years. He attended the funeral of his wife of 56 years, Eunice Shriver, in Hyannis, Massachusetts, in 2009. He was also present at the inauguration of his son-in-law, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the Republican governor of California in the fall of 2003; Schwarzenegger is married to former NBC News correspondent Maria Shriver.
My husband and I have long admired Shriver for his work with the Special Olympics, which was founded by his wife; it’s an organization that has given individuals with disabilities like my son the chance to participate, and to achieve, in athletic events and competitions. And I’ve often noted the respect and adulation in my mother’s tone when I mentioned to her that Shriver would be speaking at a graduation ceremony at the university where I was studying. My parents were in their 20′s in the 1960′s and from time to time, they noted to me that they had often thought of joining the Peace Corps, stirred by the calls to service.
A piece on Shriver’s passing on today’s ABC News ends with some excerpts from his speeches about service and public life. I’ll close this tribute to a great man by quoting his own words.
In a 2004 speech to the graduating class of Yale University, Shriver said:
“Yes, indeed, shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor, and less about your own.’‘
In a speech to a Peace Corps audience in the 1960′s, Shriver described “his take on life and death:”
“The politics of death is bureaucracy, routine, rules, status quo….The politics of life is personal initiative, creativity, flair, dash, a little daring. The politics of death is calculation, prudence, measured gestures.
“The politics of life is experience, spontaneity, grace, directness. The politics of death is fear of youth. The politics of life is to trust the young to their own experiences.“
Sargent Shriver describing the work of Peace Corps volunteers on a 1960′s TODAY SHOW, with then-anchor David Garroway.
Sargent Shriver and the Special Olympics, narrated by Tom Brokaw.
Photo by Abbie Rowe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.