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Mark Gearan

Sarge Shriver, the peace builder

Sargent Shriver talks to prospective Peace Corps volunteers in training at Rutgers University in 1961. Sargent Shriver talks to prospective Peace Corps volunteers in training at Rutgers University in 1961. (Associated Press)
By Mark Gearan
January 20, 2011

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AT A moment when our nation is engulfed in a discussion of civility in public life, there can be no better lesson than examining the consequential life of Sargent Shriver.

As the first director of the Peace Corps, architect of the War on Poverty, US ambassador to France, vice presidential nominee and candidate for president, Shriver was in the arena of civic life and left an extraordinary record of accomplishment. With boundless energy and upbeat charisma, he took on some of the toughest issues in the public sphere with optimism and commitment — poverty, race, unemployment, and access to justice. His keen mind combined with his management and political skills, allowing him to create and lead agencies and efforts that have made a real difference in the lives of people. Peace Corps, Head Start, VISTA, Legal Services, and Job Corps all bear the Shriver brand of leadership and distinctive approach to bureaucracy.

For me, having grown up Irish Catholic in Massachusetts, the chance to lead President Kennedy’s most enduring legacy — the Peace Corps — was an unparalleled honor. But the opportunity to get to know Sarge Shriver, benefit from his counsel, learn from his style and approach was a lasting gift that informed my leadership of the agency as well as my professional life since then.

In meeting Sargent Shriver, one was immediately struck by his dashing style, engaging presence and genuine excitement for your life and your story. He took an interest in people and would ask: “Where did you serve in the Peace Corps? What was your assignment? And now, what are you reading these days?’’ He was an unfailing advocate for the Peace Corps and its leadership.

In staffing the Peace Corps, he brought together a group of young staffers — all 35 years old or younger — who would assist him in launching the program. Twenty years later he was proud to catalogue their careers after serving on the Peace Corps staff: “Five college presidents; five US ambassadors; five big-time lawyers; 16 destined to receive presidential appointments; innumerable doctors, lawyers, editors, judges, businessmen, philanthropists, and educators. Even a Pulitzer Prize winner graced the original group,’’ he observed.

His energy and determination was legendary. He once told me he was visited by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1961 expressing her concern for the about-to-launch Peace Corps, which would send young women out into the villages alone. “Did it give you pause that the leading feminist of the time urged a change in the program?’’ I asked Sarge. “No!’’ he exclaimed. “We had to go forward!’’ Today 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are women.

With his talented team, he set out to create a government agency infused with youthful idealism and constant renewal. “I didn’t want another foreign service,’’ he told me. The “Five Year Rule,’’ requiring all staff to work at the Peace Corps for a limit of five years, has insured that the agency does not become stagnant.

Shriver’s ideology was always clear, and he was unwavering in his defense of service while exhorting all of us to be better people. A devout Catholic, he saw caring for others as “the cure.’’ And organizing ourselves into “communities of caring’’ as the approach. But government also had a role: “No free market can ever replace free human services rendered by one free human being to another human being. A ‘good society’ is the result of billions of such acts. Government is good, not over-reaching or intrusive, when government encourages, supports and facilitates good, moral activity by the citizens.’’

At the 20th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Shriver quoted Yale President Bartlett Giamatti’s 1981 commencement address: “What concerns me most today is the way. . .we have created thoughtful citizens who disdain politics and politicians when more than ever we need to value politics and what politicians do; when more than ever we need to recognize that the calling to public life is one of the highest callings a society can make.’’ It’s a point that should be made again today.

Sargent Shriver did not live to observe the upcoming 50th anniversary of his beloved Peace Corps on March 1. But his legacy endures in his five impressive children who also lead lives of service and in the neediest villages across the planet where Americans work in friendship for the cause of peace. In our cynical, divisive world we would be wise to look to the life lesson of this giant of the service movement who honored public service with his life’s work.

Mark Gearan, who was director of the Peace Corps from 1995 to 1999, is president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.