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Sargent Shriver, Kennedy In-Law, Peace Corps Founder, Dies at 95

Sargent Shriver, Kennedy Kin, Peace Corps Founder, Dies
Sargent Shriver, who married into the Kennedy family and became the founding director of the Peace Corps, the unexpected 1972 Democratic nominee for vice president and a lifelong champion of humanitarian causes, has died. He was 95. Photographer: Brian Snyder-Pool/Getty Images

Sargent Shriver, who married into the Kennedy family and became the founding director of the Peace Corps, the unexpected 1972 Democratic nominee for vice president and a lifelong champion of humanitarian causes, died yesterday. He was 95.

Shriver had been diagnosed in 2003 with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He lived in Potomac, Maryland. His five children, their spouses and his 19 grandchildren were with him when he died, according to a statement from the Shriver family.

He was married for 56 years to Eunice Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s younger sister, who died at 88 in August 2009. Shriver devoted his life to public service, leading President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and establishing social programs that included Head Start and Legal Services for the Poor.

“In my lifetime, America has never had a warrior for peace and against poverty like Sargent Shriver,” former President Bill Clinton said in 2003 when Shriver was honored in Los Angeles for his role in creating the legal services agency. A decade earlier, Clinton had awarded Shriver the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.

President Barack Obama, in a statement yesterday, called Shriver “one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation.”

Obama said Shriver embodied the idea of public service over a long career and will be most remembered as the founding director of the Peace Corps.

Addressing ‘Injustice’

“His loss will be felt in all of the communities around the world that have been touched by Peace Corps volunteers over the past half century and all of the lives that have been made better by his efforts to address inequality and injustice here at home,” the president said.

Known as “Sarge,” Shriver also served as U.S. ambassador to France from 1968 to 1970, helping to thaw icy relations with French President Charles de Gaulle during the Cold War. He later ran the Special Olympics, the program for mentally disabled children, which was founded by his wife.

Shriver became director of the Peace Corps on March 4, 1961, three days after President Kennedy signed an executive order creating the organization as part of his New Frontier initiative. In six years, Shriver expanded the educational outreach program to 55 countries and more than 14,500 volunteers.

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is married to Shriver’s daughter, Maria, listed his father-in-law alongside Republican President Ronald Reagan as one of his political heroes.

‘Power of the Heart’

“As someone who has always believed very strongly in the power of the body and the power of the mind and the power of will, Sargent taught me a new power: the power of the heart,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement yesterday. “He said, ‘Tear down the mirror in front of you -- the one that makes you look at yourself. Tear down the mirror and you will see the millions of people that need your help.’”

Shriver was thrust into the political spotlight in August 1972. Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern tapped him to replace Thomas Eagleton on the ticket after the Missouri senator disclosed that he had been hospitalized and treated with electroshock therapy for “nervous exhaustion.”

McGovern and Shriver lost to the incumbent president and vice president, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, in one of the most lopsided defeats in campaign history, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

‘Imitation Kennedy’

Shriver sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 but dropped out after weak showings in early primaries. In the New Hampshire primary, he finished fifth, with only 9 percent of the vote.

“He is thoughtful in private, charming in a crowd,” Newsweek wrote from the campaign trail. “He has survived half a lifetime in government without a breath of scandal, political or personal. He has good teeth. He excites. He ought to be a dream candidate -- and yet Shriver has been unable to fight clear of the notion he is only an imitation Kennedy holding the franchise until the real thing comes along.”

Shriver received little backing from Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and other members of the family, who remained bitter that he didn’t support Robert Kennedy’s bid for the presidency in 1968, according to Shriver’s official biographer, Scott Stossel. To them, Shriver’s acceptance of the ambassador’s post in Paris was tacit support for Johnson’s Vietnam policy and a slap at Bobby.

“Among some members of the Kennedy family and their intimates, Shriver’s refusal to go to work for Bobby constituted a sort of violation of the family code,” Stossel wrote in “Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver” (Smithsonian, 2004). Some of Robert Kennedy’s aides, Stossel wrote, “never forgave Shriver for what they saw as his betrayal.”

Special Olympics

After 1976, Shriver stayed out of politics and devoted his time to his law practice and charitable work. In 1984, he was named president of the Special Olympics, which evolved from Camp Shriver, a program created by Eunice Shriver in the early 1960s. He was appointed chairman of the organization in 1990 and chairman emeritus in 2003. Today the Special Olympics serves more than 3 million people in 180 countries.

Shriver was a devout Roman Catholic, and his religious beliefs influenced his career choices, according to Michael Novak, a former colleague and now the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“He thought of the Catholic faith as a culture-changing force, a shaper of civilizations, an inspirer of great works, a builder of great institutions that bring help of all kinds to the needy in all dimensions of need,” Novak wrote in the Weekly Standard in 2004.

Early Years

Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. was born on Nov. 9, 1915, in Westminster, Maryland, the son of Robert and Hilda Shriver, who were second cousins. His mother’s family were Catholic Democrats who had been pro-Confederacy; his father’s side was Protestant, Republican and pro-Union. Robert Sr., a bank officer, eventually converted to Catholicism.

Shriver began his education at St. John’s, a Catholic school in Westminster. When his family moved to Baltimore, he attended Cathedral School, serving as an altar boy.

In 1929, after his father decided to start an investment bank in New York, the family moved into a three-bedroom apartment in the Madison Hotel in Manhattan. He went to Browning School, a private boys school on the Upper East Side.

Shriver attended the Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut, on a scholarship. One of his classmates at the all-boys Catholic boarding school was John Kennedy, who would become his brother-in-law. Shriver spent the summer of 1934 in Germany as part of the Experiment in International Living.

America First Committee

Shriver enrolled at Yale University, where he was the chairman of the Yale Daily News, and graduated in 1938. He remained in New Haven, Connecticut, and received his law degree from Yale in 1941.

An opponent of U.S. involvement in the war in Europe, Shriver helped found the America First Committee, an isolationist group. Still, he enlisted in the Navy, saying it was his duty to do so even though he disagreed with U.S. policy.

He spent five years in the service, where he saw combat action and rose to the rank of lieutenant. Shriver received a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds he received aboard the battleship South Dakota during the bombardment at Guadalcanal.

Years later, Shriver admitted that his opposition to U.S. intervention was wrong.

“I wanted to spare American lives,” he said in 1964, explaining his association with America First and its most famous spokesman, the aviator Charles Lindbergh. “If that’s an ignoble motive, then I’m perfectly willing to be convicted.”

Newsweek Job

After the war, Shriver joined Newsweek in New York as an assistant editor. He worked at the magazine until 1946, when Joseph Kennedy, his future father-in-law, offered him a job to run the family’s Merchandise Mart, a wholesale center in Chicago. Kennedy knew Shriver because he had dated his daughter Eunice after the two met at a party in Manhattan.

“In the back of my mind, I knew that working for Joe would provide me an opportunity to get close to Eunice,” Shriver said in 1997.

In 1947, Kennedy asked Shriver to leave the Merchandise Mart and move to Washington to help Eunice, who was working as executive secretary on the Justice Department’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency. There was no money in the budget for Shriver’s position, so Joe Kennedy continued to pay him a salary.

Married in 1953

Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in May 1953 after a seven-year courtship. They settled in Chicago, where Shriver again ran the Merchandise Mart. He served as president of the Chicago Board of Education between 1955 and 1960 before joining John Kennedy’s presidential campaign as a coordinator.

It was Shriver who, in October 1960, persuaded his brother-in-law to place a telephone call to Coretta Scott King, the wife of jailed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. King had been incarcerated after refusing to leave a segregated restaurant in Atlanta.

Political analysts called the move a turning point in Kennedy’s narrow victory over Richard Nixon three weeks later. Kennedy won more than 70 percent of the black vote. Author James Michener described the phone call as “the single event which came closest to being the one vital accident of the campaign.”

Talent Hunt

Kennedy tapped his brother-in-law to lead the so-called talent hunt for the new Cabinet. Shriver’s selections included Robert McNamara as secretary of Defense, though not Robert Kennedy as attorney general. That controversial decision was handed down by Joe Kennedy, according to Shriver’s biographer.

After taking the Peace Corps post in the new administration, Shriver was instrumental in getting Congress to pass legislation establishing the program permanently. Since then, more than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 host countries.

Getting the Peace Corps bill through Congress, the New York Times wrote a few months later, “erased the impression long held in some Washington circles that Shriver is merely another Kennedy-in-law, a glamorous Yale dilettante who espouses liberal causes and married the boss’s daughter Eunice. Now he suddenly begins to look like one of those rare animals in Washington: the fellow who can get things done.”

War on Poverty

After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Johnson appointed Shriver as the first director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the front line in his War on Poverty. The OEO oversaw the two main components of Johnson’s initiative, Community Action and Job Corps.

Between 1964 and 1968 Shriver also founded or directed Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA; Head Start; Legal Services for the Poor; Neighborhood Health Services; and the Foster Grandparent Program.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey considered Shriver his first choice for running mate in the 1968 presidential contest, but the selection was effectively vetoed by the Kennedy family, according to Humphrey aides quoted in Stossel’s book. Humphrey chose Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine instead.

Shriver served as a partner in the law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson from 1971 to 1986, specializing in international law.

He received the Freedom From Want Award from the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in 1993. The following year the Shriver Center was established at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The center, which enables students to link academic study to professional practice and community service, was created to honor the life’s work of Sargent and Eunice Shriver.

“Nearly everybody in their life needs someone to help them,” Shriver once said. “I don’t care whether you’re the greatest self-made man; the fact is, somebody has helped you along the way.”

Shriver and his wife had five children: Robert Sargent Shriver III, a city councilman in Santa Monica, California; Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger, an author and a former reporter for NBC News; Timothy Perry Shriver, the CEO of Special Olympics International; Mark Kennedy Shriver, vice president and managing director of U.S. programs at Save the Children; and Anthony Kennedy Shriver, founder and chairman of Best Buddies International, which assists people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in finding employment and social opportunities.

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