When my sister asked us to name our heroes at Christmas dinner, I chose Sargent Shriver. I explained to my family that I loved Sarge because he was about the cause, not about himself. His devotion to many missions touched millions of lives and transformed our world.
Most people do not get to meet their heroes. I became friends with mine.
Sarge and I met in the White House shortly after 9/11 to discuss our mutual interest in mobilizing more Americans to serve their neighbors, nation and world. I instantly liked him. He was respectful, charismatic, and full of ideas. He also loved to laugh.
We talked about the Peace Corps and his original vision for it -- to fulfill President Kennedy's dream of mobilizing 100,000 Americans abroad every year -- and his initial reluctance, which I had shared 40 years later, to take the job of running, or in my case overseeing, it. After Shriver was finished building the Peace Corps, it was at its historic height of 15,000, a level it would never reach again. It is appropriate that this year of Sarge's passing is the 50th anniversary of his Peace Corps, in which more than 200,000 Americans have served since 1961.
His original vision for the Peace Corps, he told me, was to mobilize Americans through colleges and non-profit institutions. As it turned out, it would take the next few decades for that infrastructure to come into place. He was thrilled when I told him that in addition to growing the Peace Corps, we were creating "Volunteers for Prosperity" to mobilize skilled Americans to work on urgent problems, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and clean water for the poor. Every time Sarge saw me, he made a point to tell me how important he thought the USA Freedom Corps was and not to let those politicians who did not like any federal support for community, national or international service get me down.
Most Americans probably do not know what else Sargent Shriver went on to do for the country after directing the Peace Corps. President Lyndon Johnson announced Shriver's appointment to lead the "War on Poverty" even before Shriver had accepted it. It was a difficult journey in many ways and generated controversy. But millions of Americans have been helped by the programs Shriver created, such as Head Start, Job Corps, Youth Corps, VISTA, Legal Services for the Poor, and, with his wife Eunice, the Special Olympics. A wonderful documentary film called American Idealist tells this story and should be on the shelves of every schoolhouse in America because it can awaken in children a sense of hope and possibility.
To me, this is Sarge's greatest legacy -- he inspired Americans and people around the world to believe in themselves and their capacities to solve tough problems. His son, Tim, told me that his father drafted a Declaration of Interdependence, believing that our common humanity, regardless of race, religious belief, culture, and nationality, would ultimately save us.
In an increasingly dangerous world, a Peace Corps at levels to which Shriver had taken it and other initiatives that would provide opportunities for 100,000 Americans to serve abroad, as proposed in a new Sargent Shriver International Service Act, would lead to greater understanding among people of different nations, show others the true face of American compassion, and lead to a more informed foreign policy.
Years later, I saw Sarge on a number of occasions -- at Georgetown University for a discussion of what was next for national and international service; at his sister-in-law Ethel Kennedy's house for Easter; and for the last time at the Shriver residence for a celebration of the achievements of his wife, Eunice. Notwithstanding the Alzheimer's Disease that had taken his memory, Sarge was as full of the same laughter, joy and politeness I had first seen in the White House. His compassion and love of others had become the unbreakable force of his life, which no disease or hardship could shatter.
When I contacted non-profit leaders to share the sad news of his passing, one philanthropist said, "what an incredible role model for all of us," and another said, "our hearts are breaking." In the 95th year of Sarge's extraordinary life and now at its end, let us light the civic fires of action and renew our own efforts to create a more just, compassionate and peaceful world.