Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sargent Shriver

Posted By on 01.19.11 at 06:22 PM

My wife, a brother, and dozens of other people I've known went into the Peace Corps, so although I never met Sargent Shriver he was in my life. He was in a lot of lives. He was a gunnery officer in World War II. He was a Newsweek editor. He ran the Chicago School Board and ran the Peace Corps and ran LBJ's War on Poverty. He was George McGovern's vice presidential running mate. He was the ambassador to France. If he'd been born a Kennedy instead of simply marrying into the family, he'd probably be remembered as the legendary Kennedy.

I heard Shriver speak a few years ago. It was a booming speech but not an altogether coherent one. By then he was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's, though at an age when most minds, lucid or otherwise, have been reduced to whispers. Shriver died Tuesday at the age of 95.

My friend Rita McLennon got to know Shriver well. In 1991 she became executive director of Chicago's National Clearinghouse for Legal Services, a worthy organization desperately in need of a better name. She went to Shriver, who'd set it up back in the 60s, and got his permission to rename it the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. The speech I heard was at an annual dinner.

I asked Rita to remind me of some of the stories she'd told over the years about Shriver. She e-mailed back:

I went to pick up Sarge at the airport one day and I was anxious to speak with him about a number of developments. Once we got into the taxi, however, I knew I would not have my few minutes. Sarge began a conversation with the cab driver. This was in the early 2000's and Sarge was no longer a household name—but the cab driver knew who Sarge was and what he had done for the country. They chatted for 30 minutes about the state of the world and when we arrived downtown, the cab driver refused payment for the ride.

A few days after 9/11, my colleague and I drove to Maryland to see Sarge and to report on the workings of the Shriver Center. He welcomed us into his home and was very proud to show us around. The place was like a museum with notes to the Shrivers from astronauts, recognizable art and sculpture, framed letters from President Kennedy. But Sarge saw it as his home and he was proud of everything—especially the simple drawings hanging on the walls with tape that his grandchildren had made. He really loved his house—his home.

I went to Washington, D.C. one day to ask Sarge to help with a major fund-raising event. I came to the meeting fully prepared with data about the good work that had been taking place at the Shriver Center to assure him that such an effort was worth his effort. When I walked into the room, he met me with a huge hug, told me how happy he was to see me, and then said, "Before we start our meeting, I want to thank you for all that you are doing. You are a real inspiration." I loved hearing these works from this great man...I also knew that one of the things that made him so great was that he said this to virtually everyone he met. He was the ultimate encourager. He made you feel so good about yourself and what you were doing that you only wanted to work harder and do more.

Sarge was a devoted Catholic. His prayer book was well worn and full of handwritten notes in the side bars. He went to Mass often, said the rosary religiously. Importantly, he was accepting and open minded when it came to individuals who were different from him. We were at a fund-raising event and Sarge noted to my colleague, a man, that there were an awful lot of pretty women in the room. He asked my friend if he was married and my friend said, "yes" and then introduced his gay partner. Sarge belted out with sheer delight, "You're a homosexual!! Well that is just grand, just grand!!" We all laughed and were so pleased that once again, Sarge did not disappoint us. His love for others was truly unconditional.

I didn't experience this first-hand but in the film that Maria Shriver produced about his life, Sarge explained in amazing detail how one could sleep "with great comfort" under the seats of an airplane—something he did often when traveling around the world to promote and support the Peace Corps.

Rita ended with my favorite story. When Maria Shriver got engaged to Arnold Schwarzenegger (a life force about as oversize as her father), plans were made for Schwarzenegger's mother to fly over from Austria to meet the future in-laws. Sargent Shriver began disappearing. No one knew where he was. It turned out he was secretly taking German lessons. When Mrs. Schwarzenegger arrived he wanted to make her comfortable in his home.

Here's a paper on Shriver that Rita McLennon (now the COO of the Better Government Association) presented in 2006 to the California Poverty Conference.

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