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Robert Sargent Shriver | 1915-2011

R. Sargent Shriver, an 'unmatched public servant' dies

R. Sargent Shriver, a lawyer who served as the social conscience of two administrations, launching the Peace Corps for his brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, and leading the War on Poverty for President Lyndon B. Johnson, has died. He was 95.

Shriver, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2003, died Tuesday (Jan. 18, 2011) at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., his family said.

His illness moved his daughter, California's then-first lady Maria Shriver, to testify before Congress in 2009 about the disease's "terrifying" reality. Her father once was a "walking encyclopedia, his mind a beautifully tuned instrument," she said, but he no longer knew her name.

By then, a lifetime as a public servant — a title he embraced tirelessly and unaffectedly — was behind him. "Serve, serve, serve" was Shriver's credo. "Because in the end, it will be the servants who save us all."

He launched such innovative social programs as VISTA, a domestic version of the Peace Corps; Head Start, an enrichment program for low-income preschoolers; the Job Corps, to provide young people with vocational skills; and the aptly named Legal Services for the Poor.

From 1968 to 1970, Shriver served as U.S. ambassador to France. In 1972, he stepped in as Sen. George McGovern's Democratic presidential running mate after Sen. Thomas Eagleton bowed out. Four years later, Shriver briefly sought his party's presidential nomination.

Being a member of the Kennedy family — he was married to Eunice Kennedy Shriver — put him at the apex of power but also thwarted his own ambitions. Shriver was considering running for governor of Illinois in 1960 when family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy told Shriver that he was needed for John Kennedy's presidential campaign, Shriver biographer Scott Stossel said in 2004.

When President Johnson was considering Shriver as a running mate in 1964, Robert Kennedy told him, "There's not going to be a Kennedy on the ticket. And if there were, it would be me," Stossel wrote in Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver.

Yet Shriver's record of public service and innovation was "unmatched by any contemporary leader in or out of government," Colman McCarthy wrote in 2002 in the National Catholic Reporter.

In the 1950s, Shriver was president of the Chicago Board of Education and for decades had served on the board of Special Olympics — the athletic games for the mentally disabled that were started in his Maryland back yard by his wife, Eunice.

"All of these programs still exist, and they still change people's lives," daughter Maria, who is married to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, told the Associated Press in 2008.

Along with boundless energy and a commitment to those in need, Shriver was known for relentless optimism. He also was a devout Catholic, a daily communicant who carried a well-worn rosary and made no secret of his abiding faith.

His dedication to public service was matched only by his devotion to his family. Shriver spent seven years courting Eunice Mary Kennedy before she married him in 1953. They had been married 56 years when she died at 88 in 2009.

Each of their five children followed the example of their parents in pursuing public endeavors.

Timothy has been chairman of the Special Olympics for more than a dozen years. Eldest son Bobby is a Santa Monica, Calif., city councilman and film producer. Mark was a member of the Maryland Legislature. Anthony runs Best Buddies, which pairs college students with the mentally disabled.

Daughter Maria, a former network reporter, won two Emmys in 2009 for documentaries on Alzheimer's that she produced. One was based on a children's book she wrote, Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?

Robert Sargent Shriver was born Nov. 19, 1915, in Westminster, Md., to Robert and Hilda Shriver.

The Depression financially ruined his stockbroker father, and through the largesse of family and friends, Shriver attended Yale University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1938 and a law degree three years later.

During World War II, he spent five years in the Navy and served in the Pacific.

In 1946, he took a job as an assistant editor at Newsweek and met Joseph P. Kennedy, who two years later asked Shriver to manage the giant Chicago Merchandise Mart.

When Shriver fell in love with the daughter of his boss, he became a close and valued member of the famously clannish Kennedy family.

"Our brother-in-law became our brother," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said in 2005.

Another of Shriver's brothers-in-law, John Kennedy — then a Democratic senator from Massachusetts — turned to Shriver in 1960 for help with his quest for the presidency. As manager of the civil-rights arm of the campaign, Shriver engineered a feat that some say tipped the close election in Kennedy's favor.

When a young minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was jailed in Alabama for civil disobedience, Shriver persuaded Kennedy to reach out to King and his wife. The call was credited with helping to cement the crucial black vote for Kennedy.

The day after his inauguration, Kennedy asked Shriver to help him develop a program for young Americans to serve overseas. "Make it big," the president counseled.

It was Shriver's idea to send Americans to the farthest reaches of the globe, bringing education, technology and a sense of fellowship that Shriver believed could break down barriers and win respect for the United States. He promised low pay, primitive conditions — and the reward of translating ideals into action.

His challenge was: "Be Somebody. Join the Peace Corps." Of recruits, he required just three qualities: courage, commitment and conviction.

Peace Corps volunteers arrived in five countries in 1961. In just under six years, Shriver developed programs in 55 countries with more than 14,500 volunteers. Since its inception, the Peace Corps has sent 200,000 volunteers to 139 countries. Today, more than 8,500 volunteers serve in 77 countries.

After John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, President Johnson asked Shriver to tackle the problem of poverty in the United States. At a 1964 news conference announcing his appointment as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, a reporter demanded: "Mr. Shriver, do you really believe that poverty can be wiped out?" Without hesitation, he replied: "Yes. I do."

In the next four years, Shriver unleashed a flurry of new programs. Using the Peace Corps as his model, Shriver crafted VISTA, a volunteer service corps aimed at U.S. cities. The acronym stood for Volunteers in Service to America. Head Start was designed to prepare underprivileged preschoolers, just as private nursery schools served more affluent children.

Community Action provided low-income housing. Foster Grandparents matched elderly volunteers with young children. Legal Services guaranteed lawyers to poor people. Indian and Migrant Opportunities brought training to American Indians. Neighborhood Health Services targeted community medical needs.

Each program is in place today.

At 79, Shriver received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. "In my lifetime, America has never had a warrior for peace and against poverty, a warrior to make peace the noblest of endeavors, like Sarge Shriver," the president said at the 1994 ceremony.

When he was 90, Boston's John F. Kennedy Library organized a forum in Shriver's honor. He was frail in the winter of 2005. Alzheimer's was stealing his memory, and his hair had turned snow white. Using a cane to help him walk, he entered with his wife beside him. The audience burst into cheers.

Onstage, his old friend, Kennedy adviser Harris Wofford, had been talking about Shriver's days in Chicago but abruptly changed course, declaring: "Here's the man who should have been president."

R. Sargent Shriver, an 'unmatched public servant' dies 01/19/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:15pm]
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