A great light has gone out. R. Sargent Shriver, one of my personal heroes and a man who has done more to advance the causes of peace, human rights, and justice than anyone in decades, has passed away.
I assume you are familiar with the getting-to-know-you question: If you could have dinner with one person who would it be? For me, Sargent Shriver was atop that list. For those not familiar with his work, he brought to life some of the most prolific social and service-oriented programs of the 20th century: Peace Corps, Legal Services for the Poor, Head Start, and (assisting his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver), the Special Olympics. He served in the US Navy in World War II, served as head of the Chicago School Board, led Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and served as the US Ambassador to France under Johnson and Nixon. He was George McGovern’s running mate in 1972 and made his own bid for the presidency in 1976. In fact, had he not been blocked by Joe Kennedy in the 60s, he likely would have made a successful run for governor of Illinois and (potentially) the presidency in his own right.
Sarge was a man of deep faith; one of the last serious pro-life democrats. His approach to policy was heavily informed by the philosophy and moral arguments of the heavy hitters of Catholic theology. But he was also shrewd. When Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned in 1960, JFK was on the campaign trail and Sarge wanted JFK to call King’s wife, Coretta, to let her know he would do what he could to help secure King’s release. Bobby hated the idea, but Sarge knew it was the right thing to do and patiently waited until he was alone with JFK to suggest the call. Sarge even dialed the number for him. RFK was furious but King’s father, a prominent preacher in the south, threw his support behind the candidate who was willing to call Coretta and stand by Dr. King in their hour of need, a move which counted when the ballots were tallied in November.
I first heard of Sarge in 2004. WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station, had a morning program an on this particular day, the host was interviewing Sarge’s biographer, Scott Stossel, regarding his recent biography on the man, appropriately-named “Sarge.” Stossel recounted the numerous historic events to which Sarge was not only a witness, but also a key participant. Time and again Sarge was called upon to start a program or initiative while having no expertise in that particular area. Undaunted, he brought them to life with an indomitable spirit and the soul of a happy warrior. He got it done.
I began reading the biography in 2006, right before I left to volunteer in Jamaica. That isn’t what inspired the move but it certainly nudged me in that direction, and many of my decisions since. I slowly worked my way through the 700-page book during my time abroad. Unequivocally, I can connect the dots from how Sarge’s story impacted me in that time abroad to where I am today. If you are looking for inspiration or a model of how to profoundly impact someone’s life – regardless of how big or small you want that action to be – read about Sarge.