Remembering Sargent Shriver

01/18/2011 06:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Pat Waak Former Chair of the Colorado Democratic Party

This year Peace Corps will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The creation of the Peace Corps was recently noted as the most prominent lasting legacy of President John F. Kennedy. Almost every American now has someone from their family or close circle of friends who served in the Peace Corps, and most of us who served have rich memories and stories to share.

Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy's brother-in-law, would become the first director of the Peace Corps. In 1972 I was a member of Sargent Shriver's campaign staff when he ran as the Democratic nominee for Vice President. A former volunteer to Brazil myself, I came to an awareness of the number of volunteers who go on to serve in public life.

In 1976 I became the Deputy Campaign Manager for Sargent Shriver's bid for U.S. President. Often traveling with Sarge throughout the campaign, I met numerous former volunteers and heard the stories of the early days, and the decisions that had to be made in the early 1960s about how service would work and who would be allowed to serve. The discussions of language immersion, cultural training, and living arrangements were a centerpiece.

Could women serve in isolated areas of different countries? When John Kennedy had included the concept of the Peace Corps in a speech, no one had suggested that it would be a men-only organization. There were concerns raised. But the answer in 1961 was yes, women would serve. They would turn out to be more proficient in learning the language, more likely to serve out their two years, and more successful in completing their assignment.

For me, Peace Corps would change my life. I had planned to be a medical missionary; however, Peace Corps offered a different kind of public service. I would be trained in community development. Ah yes, those community organizers have a root in government. I would go on to dedicate the rest of my life in using the public sphere to improve the lives of my local to global community.

This past year I have been collecting narratives from prominent Coloradans who have served in the Peace Corps. Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs was a Peace Corps volunteer in South America. First Lady Jeannie Ritter served in Tunisia. Dr. David Hibbard was in the first group to go to Ghana in 1961. Senator Mark Udall's mother, Patricia "Sam" Udall, was a volunteer to Nepal. Denver businesswoman Juana Bordas was a volunteer to Chile. Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Daniel Taubman served in Peru. State Rep. Jeanne Labuda was a volunteer in Liberia. And let's not forget that Richard Celeste, President of Colorado College, is a former director of the Peace Corps. The list goes on and on.

Today Peace Corps is still alive. Those of us who served continue to remind President Obama, U.S. Senators and Representatives that Peace Corps is an important part of U.S. foreign policy. It invests in the infrastructure of countries that we need in our efforts to build economic solidarity and peace. It is also an investment in the leadership of our own country. The language skills, the economic understanding, and raised international awareness are all part of what must be a bi-partisan effort to create a secure world.

What a fitting legacy for one man. Sargent Shriver had a vision that like all visionaries, we could not possibly have seen the extent of when it began. Would that each of us could leave such a legacy to the present and the future. I mourn his passing today, but I know that dedication to the common good has placed him in our memories forever.