BETHESDA, Md. — Bound by marriage to the nation's most powerful political family, R. Sargent Shriver showed his commitment to service not through high office but with achievements no less historic: first director of the Peace Corps and leader of the war on poverty.
One of the last links to President John F. Kennedy's administration, Shriver, who announced in 2003 that he had Alzheimer's disease, died Tuesday after being hospitalized for several days in his native Maryland. He was 95.
A businessman and lawyer, Shriver helped his wife and Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver run the organization that allows mentally challenged children to participate in sports, and also spent two years as ambassador to France.
For all his accomplishments, though, the handsome and charming Shriver ultimately became known first as an in-law – brother-in-law of President Kennedy and, late in life, father-in-law of actor-former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
President Barack Obama called Shriver, "one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation."
"Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Sarge came to embody the idea of public service," Obama said in a statement.
Born in 1915 to a prominent old Maryland family, Shriver was the son of a stockbroker who would lose most of his money in the crash of 1929.
Shriver went on a scholarship to Yale, then went on to Yale Law School. After serving in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, he returned and became an assistant editor at Newsweek magazine. About this time, he met Eunice Kennedy and was immediately taken by her. They married in 1953 in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Speaking outside Suburban Hospital in Maryland where his father died, Anthony Kennedy Shriver said his father was "with my mom now," and called his parents' marriage a great love story.
Eunice died on Aug. 11, 2009, at age 88. The Kennedy family suffered a second blow that same month when Sen. Edward Kennedy died after a long battle with brain cancer.
At her mother's memorial service, the Shrivers' daughter and former California first lady Maria Shriver said her father let her mother "rip and he let her roar, and he loved everything about her." The white-haired Shriver attended in a wheelchair.
After Shriver and Eunice met, family patriarch, the powerful Joseph P. Kennedy, hired his son-in-law to manage his Merchandise Mart in Chicago. He was a big success on the job and in Chicago in general – and even was elected head of the school board in 1955.
Though the Kennedys granted Shriver power, they also withheld it. As he would throughout his life, he sought higher office and considered running for governor of Illinois in 1960, only to be told the family needed his help for John Kennedy's presidential campaign.
During that campaign, Shriver, who had fought for integration in Chicago, helped persuade JFK to make a crucial decision despite other staffers' fears of a white backlash. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Georgia that fall, Kennedy, urged by Shriver and fellow aide Harris Wofford, phoned King's wife and offered support. His gesture was deeply appreciated by King's family and brought the candidate crucial support.
Soon after taking office, President Kennedy named Shriver to fulfill a campaign promise to start the Peace Corps. Although it was belittled by some as a "kiddie corps," Shriver quickly built the agency into an international institution that it remains today.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Shriver's work led to almost a quarter-million volunteers helping 139 countries around the world over the past 50 years.
"With tenacity and vision, Sargent Shriver built the promise of the Peace Corps into an American institution," Kerry said in a statement.
Within the family, Shriver was sometimes relied upon for the hardest tasks. When Jacqueline Kennedy needed the funeral arranged for her assassinated husband, she asked her brother-in-law.
"He was a man of giant love, energy, enthusiasm, and commitment," the Shriver family said in a statement. "He lived to make the world a more joyful, faithful, and compassionate place. He centered everything on his faith and his family. He worked on stages both large and small but in the end, he will be best known for his love of others."
In public, Shriver spoke warmly of his famous in-laws, but the private relationship was often tense. According to Scott Stossel's "Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver," an authorized 2004 biography, the ebullient and charismatic Shriver was a faithful man amid a clan of womanizers, a sometimes giddy idealist labeled "the house Communist" by the family.
"He was never about personal accomplishments or personal celebrity except insofar as it helped him achieve his policy goals," Stossel said. "He thought of public service more broadly than just holding elective office."
After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson called upon Shriver to run another program which then existed only as a high-minded concept: the War on Poverty, a part of the new president's Great Society. Shriver's willingness to work for Johnson, whose dislike for the Kennedys was well-known, was seen as betrayal by some family members, according to Stossel.
Shriver's efforts in the Johnson administration demonstrated both the reach and frustrations of government programs: Head Start remains respected for offering early education for poor children, and Legal Services gave the poor an opportunity for better representation in court. But other Shriver initiatives suffered from bureaucracy, feuds with local officials and a struggle for funds as Johnson devoted more and more money to the Vietnam War.
In early 1968, with Shriver rumored to be on the verge of quitting, Johnson offered him the ambassadorship to France, a position he held for two years. He accepted it even though some family members wanted Shriver to support Sen. Robert Kennedy's presidential candidacy instead.
In Paris, Shriver won many French fans, but he left the post for a job in private business not long after Nixon took office in 1969.
Like always, he aspired to national office, but at times was thwarted by the family.
Hubert Humphrey considered him for his running mate in the 1968 election, but family resistance helped Humphrey change his mind.
When Shriver finally became a candidate, the results were disastrous: He was George McGovern's running mate in the 1972 election, but the Democrats lost in a landslide to President Richard M. Nixon.
McGovern recalled Tuesday how Shriver was the biggest morale booster on the campaign trail and even managed to raise his spirits the day after they lost so decisively.
"He came over and put an arm around me and said, 'Well, George we lost 49 states, but we didn't lose our souls,'" McGovern said in an interview from St. Augustine, Fla.
Four years later, Shriver's presidential campaign ended quickly, overrun by a then-little-known Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter. His failures as a candidate left him with a reputation as a charming, but shallow salesman. (A "useless dingbat," wrote Hunter S. Thompson in his classic "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72").
When McGovern drafted him to replace Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running-mate, Shriver was good humored that he had been McGovern's seventh pick – including Ted Kennedy. He named his campaign plane "Lucky 7."
In September 1975, Shriver joined an already crowded race for the 1976 Democratic nomination. But he dropped out in March 1976 after poor showings in the early primaries and never again sought office. Instead, he helped run the Special Olympics and advocated an end to the nuclear arms race.
"Sargent Shriver helped Special Olympics break down barriers around the world and with his knowledge and expertise in foreign affairs and different cultures, helped turn Special Olympics into the international movement it is today," said Robert A. Johnson, president and CEO of the organization.
In 1994, Shriver received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton.
"He leaves behind an astonishing legacy of people helped, lives transformed, and communities improved," Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. "Through his work and his passion, he helped build a better America and a more humane world."
His famous son-in-law, Arnold Schwarzenegger, called Shriver an inspiration.
"As someone who has always believed very strongly in the power of the body and the power of the mind and the power of will, Sargent taught me a new power: the power of the heart," said Schwarzenegger, who is married to Maria Shriver.
Besides Maria and Anthony, the Shrivers also three more sons – Robert, Timothy and Mark. Mark Shriver was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1995 and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002. They also had 19 grandchildren.