R. Sargent Shriver, one of the great men of the 20th century, died January 18 at age 95. Every major news publication and program gave highlights of his fruitful life. Much more unusual, many reporters who covered him during his years in Washington expressed their fondness and admiration for him.
I share those emotions. I didn’t know him well, but he made a strong impression on me when I first met him in 1962 and on a dozen or so occasions over the years.
Fifty years ago Sarge received the unenviable task of carrying out one of brother-in-law John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign promises: to create a Peace Corps that would send American volunteers to work in developing nations wanting their help. Many at home and abroad thought the idea would never work.
After watching for a year to see if this dream could become a reality, I signed up, received two months of exhausting training, and went to teach English in the only high school in Wollo Province, Ethiopia. The 275 Ethiopia I volunteers doubled the high school faculty in Ethiopia overnight.
Not long after my group of 17 or 18 had settled in, word came that the Peace Corps director was visiting volunteers. We were a harrowing day’s drive from the capital and oversight by staff, which was just the way we wanted it, and didn’t expect Sarge Shriver to show up there. One morning I received word that he had landed at a little airport down the mountain and would meet with us at the teahouse (a tiny booth from which the janitor sold tea) during our break.
I can’t remember whether we sat on the ground or someone managed to find some chairs, but we sat in a circle. He peppered us with questions about our needs at our houses, at the school, in the community.
Here’s what struck me most: He listened. He gave every person his complete attention. He cared what we said.
He didn’t stay at the school long. The headmaster came running down to the teahouse too late to meet the President’s brother-in-law. He left town before the governor learned he was there. Sarge came to see what he could do to make our experience better and our work in Ethiopia more effective, not to be a diplomat or politician.
I saw those same personal and professional qualities as he carried out the war on poverty and went on to other service.
He was an idealist and an optimist. He was a leader and a pragmatist. He was intelligent and joyful. He cared deeply about individuals and about people. He devoted much of his life to improving the chances of the least advantaged in this country and many others. He gave hundreds of thousands of Americans the opportunity to serve their country.
Sarge Shriver was a rare man.