Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr, better known as Sargent Shriver, created the Peace Corps while a senior member of JFK's administration. He married Eunice Kennedy, sister of JFK and Robert Kennedy, and was known as the "architect" of President Johnson's War on Poverty. He died in 2011. His son Mark K Shriver has just written a book, "A Good Man" (Henry Holt, $24) about his father's life and legacy.
In this excerpt, Shriver shares the story of how his father came to organize JFK's state funeral.
My mom was one month pregnant with me when she accompanied her older brother Jack to the home country, the Republic of Ireland. Jackie Kennedy was under doctor’s orders not to go on the trip with her husband. She, too, was pregnant but had been put on bed rest. Mom didn’t tell anyone that she was pregnant, for fear of missing the trip of a lifetime— the first Irish Catholic president visiting the family homeland, and Mom playing the role of First Lady! Nothing was going to hold her back from going to Ireland.
The crowds were raucous everywhere they went— as if a long-suffering people had shed the curse of centuries of poverty to occupy the White House right along with Ireland’s most famous export.
But the joy felt on this trip would not last long— just two months later, the First Family’s two-day-old son, Patrick, died. Ireland and America grieved.
I obviously had no idea of the additional drama I was soon to be born into. Surely a magical realist writer like Gabriel García Márquez could have plumbed the narrative possibility of telling the story of Jack’s assassination from the perspective of a baby inside the womb of the dead president’s sister.
The details I would have witnessed from that privileged perch: On Friday, November 22, Mom called Dad from the obstetrician’s office to see if he could sneak out of the Peace Corps office for lunch with her and my soon-to-be older brother Timmy. They waited for him at a table in the dining room at the Hotel Lafayette. She was pregnant at age forty-two, but with her strong jawline and few wrinkles, she looked thirty and had the energy of a twenty-something.
She would go on to have my brother Anthony at forty-four, and she dared, contrary to the tenets of medicine and the culture, to get pregnant again at forty-six, albeit losing the baby in a miscarriage.
No doubt she was happy that day, doubly so as Dad entered the room and smiled at her because he already knew the appointment had gone well. They didn’t know yet that a boy would follow Bobby, Maria, and Timmy— they waited for that to reveal itself the old-fashioned way.
After a little while, the waiter came over to the table and told Dad that he had an urgent call from his assistant.
As Dad walked back to the table, Mom, I assume, could detect the change in his demeanor. He surely wasn’t smiling; I suppose he was staring at her, studying her, and that his whole gait and facial expression had grown grave.
He sat down, and must have run through the consequences of what he was about to tell her: How would it affect the health of a woman whose beloved father had had a debilitating stroke? Whose oldest brother, Joe, had been killed in World War II when his plane exploded over England on a secret mission? Whose older sister had died in an airplane crash in France shortly after the war? How would the news affect the health of that baby—me—whom he saw as a sacred gift from God?
He surely collected himself, soothing her eyes with his. He spoke softly and assuredly, somehow making slightly bearable the incomprehensible news that her brother had been shot.
They left the restaurant and headed to the Peace Corps building, where a wire flash announced that Jack had died.
Mom and Dad and a few Peace Corps staff ers knelt and prayed in Dad’s office. More reports poured in, confirming the news. Dad called a quick staff meeting and decided to send a wire to Peace Corps staff around the world, informing them of what had happened and reassuring them that the Peace Corps would continue its work.
Dad asked his assistant, Mary Ann Orlando, to take Timmy and gather my other future siblings together at our home in Rockville, while Mom and he went to the White House. There they met with both Uncle Bobby and Uncle Teddy and decided that Mom and Teddy would go to Massachusetts to be with their mother and father, and Bobby would go to Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland, to meet the arrival of Air Force One. Dad was ostensibly in charge at the White House.
Hours later, Jackie Kennedy sent word that she wanted Dad to lead the planning of the funeral.