Peace to Sargent Shriver

Sarge Shriver, the peace builder

By Mark Gearan for The Boston Globe
January 20, 2011

AT A moment when our nation is engulfed in a discussion of civility in public life, there can be no better lesson than examining the consequential life of Sargent Shriver.

As the first director of the Peace Corps, architect of the War on Poverty, US ambassador to France, vice presidential nominee and candidate for president, Shriver was in the arena of civic life and left an extraordinary record of accomplishment. With boundless energy and upbeat charisma, he took on some of the toughest issues in the public sphere with optimism and commitment — poverty, race, unemployment, and access to justice. His keen mind combined with his management and political skills, allowing him to create and lead agencies and efforts that have made a real difference in the lives of people. Peace Corps, Head Start, VISTA, Legal Services, and Job Corps all bear the Shriver brand of leadership and distinctive approach to bureaucracy.

For me, having grown up Irish Catholic in Massachusetts, the chance to lead President Kennedy’s most enduring legacy — the Peace Corps — was an unparalleled honor. But the opportunity to get to know Sarge Shriver, benefit from his counsel, learn from his style and approach was a lasting gift that informed my leadership of the agency as well as my professional life since then.

In meeting Sargent Shriver, one was immediately struck by his dashing style, engaging presence and genuine excitement for your life and your story. He took an interest in people and would ask: “Where did you serve in the Peace Corps? What was your assignment? And now, what are you reading these days?’’ He was an unfailing advocate for the Peace Corps and its leadership.

In staffing the Peace Corps, he brought together a group of young staffers — all 35 years old or younger — who would assist him in launching the program. Twenty years later he was proud to catalogue their careers after serving on the Peace Corps staff: “Five college presidents; five US ambassadors; five big-time lawyers; 16 destined to receive presidential appointments; innumerable doctors, lawyers, editors, judges, businessmen, philanthropists, and educators. Even a Pulitzer Prize winner graced the original group,’’ he observed.

His energy and determination was legendary. He once told me he was visited by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1961 expressing her concern for the about-to-launch Peace Corps, which would send young women out into the villages alone. “Did it give you pause that the leading feminist of the time urged a change in the program?’’ I asked Sarge. “No!’’ he exclaimed. “We had to go forward!’’ Today 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are women.

With his talented team, he set out to create a government agency infused with youthful idealism and constant renewal. “I didn’t want another foreign service,’’ he told me. The “Five Year Rule,’’ requiring all staff to work at the Peace Corps for a limit of five years, has insured that the agency does not become stagnant.

Shriver’s ideology was always clear, and he was unwavering in his defense of service while exhorting all of us to be better people. A devout Catholic, he saw caring for others as “the cure.’’ And organizing ourselves into “communities of caring’’ as the approach. But government also had a role: “No free market can ever replace free human services rendered by one free human being to another human being. A ‘good society’ is the result of billions of such acts. Government is good, not over-reaching or intrusive, when government encourages, supports and facilitates good, moral activity by the citizens.’’

At the 20th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Shriver quoted Yale President Bartlett Giamatti’s 1981 commencement address: “What concerns me most today is the way. . .we have created thoughtful citizens who disdain politics and politicians when more than ever we need to value politics and what politicians do; when more than ever we need to recognize that the calling to public life is one of the highest callings a society can make.’’ It’s a point that should be made again today.

Sargent Shriver did not live to observe the upcoming 50th anniversary of his beloved Peace Corps on March 1. But his legacy endures in his five impressive children who also lead lives of service and in the neediest villages across the planet where Americans work in friendship for the cause of peace. In our cynical, divisive world we would be wise to look to the life lesson of this giant of the service movement who honored public service with his life’s work.

Mark Gearan, who was director of the Peace Corps from 1995 to 1999, is president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.

© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.

What I Learned From Sargent Shriver

by Justin Gabbard

By BONO for the New York Times

The Irish are still mesmerized by the mythical place that is America, but in the ’60s our fascination got out of hand. I was not old enough to remember the sacrifices of the great generation who saved Europe in the Second World War, or to quite comprehend what was going on in Vietnam. But what I do remember, and cannot forget, is watching a man walk on the moon in 1969 and thinking here is a nation that finds joy in the impossible.

The Irish saw the Kennedys as our own royal family out on loan to America. A million of them turned out on J.F.K.’s homecoming to see these patrician public servants who, despite their station, had no patience for the status quo. (They also loved that the Kennedys looked more WASP than any “Prod,” our familiar term for Protestant.)

I remember Bobby’s rolled-up sleeves, Jack’s jutted jaw and the message — a call to action — that the world didn’t have to be the way it was. Science and faith had found a perfect rhyme.

In the background, but hardly in the shadows, was Robert Sargent Shriver. A diamond intelligence, too bright to keep in the darkness. He was not Robert or Bob, he was Sarge, and for all the love in him, he knew that love was a tough word. Easy to say, tough to see it through. Love, yes, and peace, too, in no small measure; this was the ’60s but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at him. No long hair in the Shriver house, or rock ’n’ roll. He and his beautiful bride, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, would go to Mass every day — as much an act of rebellion against brutal modernity as it was an act of worship. Love, yes, but love as a brave act, a bold act, requiring toughness and sacrifice.

His faith demanded action, from him, from all of us. For the Word to become flesh, we had to become the eyes, the ears, the hands of a just God. Injustice could, in the words of the old spiritual, “Be Overcome.” Robert Sargent sang, “Make me a channel of your peace,” and became the song.

Make me a channel of your peace:

Where there is hatred let me bring your love.

Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord,

And where there’s doubt, true faith in you.

Oh, Master grant that I may never seek,

So much to be consoled as to console.

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace,

Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope.

Where there is darkness, only light,

And where there’s sadness, ever joy.

The Peace Corps was Jack Kennedy’s creation but embodied Sargent Shriver’s spirit. Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty but Sarge led the charge. These, and the Special Olympics, were as dramatic an incarnation of the ideas at the heart of America as the space program.

Robert Sargent Shriver changed the world more than a few times and, I am happy to say, changed my world forever. In the late ’90s, when the Jubilee 2000 campaign — which aimed to cancel the debts that the poorest nations owed to the richest — asked me to help in the United States, I called on the Shriver clan for help and advice. What I got were those things in spades, and a call to arms like a thump in the back.

In the years since, Bobby Shriver — Sarge’s oldest son — and I co-founded three fighting units in the war against global poverty: DATA, ONE and (RED). We may not yet know what it will take to finish the fight and silence suffering in our time, but we are flat out trying to live up to Sarge’s drill.

I have beautiful memories of Bobby and me sitting with his father and mother at the Shrivers’ kitchen table — the same team that gazed over J.F.K.’s shoulder — looking over our paltry attempts at speechifying, prodding and pushing us toward comprehensibility and credibility, a challenge when your son starts hanging round with a bleeding-heart Irish rock star.

Toward the end, when I visited Sarge as a frailer man, I was astonished by his good spirits and good humor. He had the room around him laughing out loud. I thought it a fitting final victory in a life that embodied service and transcended, so often, grave duty, that he had a certain weightlessness about him. Even then, his job nearly done, his light shone undiminished, and brightened us all.

Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 and a co-founder of the advocacy group ONE and (Product)RED, is a contributing columnist for The Times.

© Copyright 2011 The New York Times.