Thursday, January 27, 2011

Remembering an American Idealist and Regretting a Wasted Year

The natural idealism of youth is an idealism, alas, for which we do not always provide as many outlets as we should. --Robert Sargent Shriver (1915 - 2011)
He embodied everything good and decent and optimistic about America. Sargent Shriver, who died this month at the age of 95, was a genuine American idealist. He believed in the power of individuals to make a difference and the power of youth to transform the world. He devoted much of his life attempting to inspire a culture of service and community activism. Few Americans today really know much about Sargent Shriver. Although his intellect and political skills were formidable, he was overshadowed by his connection to the Kennedy’s; the husband of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, he was perpetually relegated to status of brother-in-law.

In the early 1960’s, when the United States resonated with optimism and the nation’s youth felt inspired to serve, Shriver radiated all of the positive energy and spirit of JFK’s New Frontier. When a young and charismatic President Kennedy declared in his inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," it was Shriver who led the way. Shriver created the Peace Corps and was its first director. In its formative years, he inspired an entire generation of Americans to commit 27 months of their life in far off lands; to live among peoples and cultures that had, until then, been alien to them. Now in its fiftieth year, the Peace Corps has sent over 200,000 young people to impoverished and developing countries, building bridges literally and figuratively, teaching, learning, relating, and spreading all that is good and decent about American democracy.

Since his passing, story upon story has been told of how Shriver’s commitment and dedication, his passion for youth, and his unparalleled belief in the power of relationships helped change lives forever. He sent an army of bright, energetic young Americans on a mission of peace, armed only with smiles and a helping hand, and asked them to spread friendship and understanding throughout the world.

The Peace Corps emerged from an unformed idea articulated in a series of speeches in 1960 by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who called for the creation of a “Peace Corps of talented young people” to boost America’s attempts to win the hearts and minds of developing nations; an effort, according to Kennedy, that had been hampered by “ill-chosen, ill-equipped, and ill-briefed” ambassadors who were losing influence to the Soviet Union. Kennedy called on Shriver to transform style into substance. No one was better suited to the task. Shriver combined the organizational skills of an experienced and pragmatic businessman (he had spent several years as the manager of Merchandise Mart, part of Joseph Kennedy’s business empire) with compelling salesmanship and sincere idealism to turn Kennedy’s untested concept into a lasting legacy of success.

When the brief reign of Camelot ended and many of Kennedy’s aides and advisors left for home, Shriver stayed behind to lead the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, a more logistically difficult and politically complex task that required immense discretion and tact. Political enemies and ideological opponents abounded. Once again, Shriver succeeded where others had failed. He built a series of institutions – Head Start, the Job Corps, VISTA, the Legal Services Corporation, and other services for the poor – that thrive to this day, making the United States a better, more compassionate country. In 1972, when George McGovern asked him to be his running mate in a losing presidential election, Shriver was the one bright spot in an otherwise regrettable year. Along the way, Shriver assisted his beloved wife of 56 years in creating the Special Olympics, a cause Eunice championed the rest of her life, and which provided opportunities for young persons with intellectual disabilities to overcome stereotypes and to be recognized for their own incredible talents and abilities.

Shriver always challenged others to work harder, to do more, and to dream bigger. Not surprisingly, the root of Shriver’s concept of service was his faith. A devout Catholic, he tried to model his life after the teachings of Jesus. He admired Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and, starting in high school and throughout his life, asked himself every day, “What have I done to improve the lot of humanity?” As Jonathan Cohn noted recently in The New Republic, “Shriver’s Catholicism was in some ways analogous to Day’s: rooted in the ethics of the Christian Gospels; dedicated to working toward peace, social justice, and redemption of suffering here on earth; and concerned especially with easing the plight of the poor and the disabled.” Always filled with good spirits and good humor, it would be difficult not to be inspired by the life and times of Robert Sargent Shriver.

One of my enduring regrets in life is the lack of vision I demonstrated at the age of 22, the time in life when one’s youthful energy, spirit of adventure, and freedom to set one’s path are at their peak. I graduated from Wittenberg University in May 1981 with plans to attend business school at Indiana University at Bloomington, where I had been accepted as a teacher’s assistant in accounting and could expect an MBA degree two years hence. For the summer, I had a job lined up in the financial accounting department of Dresser Industries in Houston, Texas, where my brother-in-law was employed in oilfield services. He had arranged what seemed at the time a great opportunity, a summer working in a real-life, good paying job at a Fortune 500 corporation. So, off to Houston I went.

It did not take long, however, before I sensed that something was missing and that I had sold myself short. Although my intellectual interests had always pointed in other directions, I was captive to conventional notions of economic security. I could feel myself heading for the life of the “Everyman” and emulating Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, “Before it's all over we're gonna get a little place out in the country, and I'll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens..." I lacked vision and, worse, the courage of my convictions. I needed more from life and work but did not know how to make it happen. How could I devote my life to something more meaningful than the pursuit of money and profit, necessary perhaps to sustain the economy, but spiritually unfulfilling? I needed more.

Three weeks before leaving for business school, I experienced an existential crisis of sorts. While I did not yet know my direction in life, I was pretty sure it should be more in tune with my passions. Law school, which more closely appealed to my interests in politics, government, and society, had until then seemed out-of-reach. As the son of a minister and a school teacher, two traditionally low paying professions that could not easily support the ever increasing tuition at U.S. law schools, I could not reasonably expect much financial assistance, especially after my parents had just put three children through college over the previous eleven years. Ever the pragmatist, my father pushed me to pursue the practical professions, accounting and business. “You need to make a living,” he would say. When I took a course in Native American Literature in college, he snorted, “What kind of a job will that get you?” Although my father’s advice was well intentioned and influenced in part by his having been raised in the Depression, it glaringly ignored his and my mother’s own paths in life, in which service to others was their calling, their raison d’ĂȘtre. Even then, I felt conflicted by pragmatism and idealism.

When the manager of the accounting department offered to hire me as the full-time replacement for another accountant who was leaving at the end of summer, I mustered the courage to inform my parents that I was withdrawing from business school and staying in Houston. “I want to go to law school,” I said. My parents were accepting, but skeptical, afraid that I would not follow through and would find it difficult to make the transition back to school after a year or more of reality. But this was the first truly independent decision of my young life and, given where I sat in August 1981, it was the right decision. Later that year, I was accepted into a very good law school on a full-tuition scholarship and have been very fortunate in my career opportunities. I have no regrets about the path I eventually took.

When examined from a broader, historical perspective, however, my year in Houston was uninspired. Looking back, it was a wasted year, full of idle, unproductive time in which my most creative thoughts consisted of how to get through the day until happy hour arrived. Now, as I ponder the life of Sargent Shriver and all of the young Americans he inspired to serve; as I think of all the young men and women today who serve in the military, or tutor and teach inner city kids in programs like City Year and Teach for America, or commit to a year of community service in AmeriCorps, I cannot help but wonder why I was not more thoughtful in how I chose to spend that period in my life, before I was tied down with mortgages and children and college tuition. “If a young person has any idealism at all,” Shriver once noted, “it's strongest about the time he finishes college.”

A few years after arriving in Washington, I learned of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC), a social justice ministry founded by Luther Place Church, at Thomas Circle, when it was led by the Rev. John Steinbruck, a passionate and articulate preacher of the Social Gospel. Based in part on the spirit and model of the Peace Corps, since its founding in 1979, LVC has placed young college graduates (and others) into year-long stints with homeless shelters, HIV-AIDS clinics, low-income housing agencies, immigrant aid services, and public policy advocacy on behalf of poor and low-income people in cities throughout the country. Similar to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and the Mennonite Voluntary Service, LVC was inspired, consciously or not, by the vision and practical guidance of Sargent Shriver. Although I was fortunate to have later served, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, on LVC’s Steering Committee and National Advisory Board, I have always felt somewhat cheated for having never been among the more than two thousand LVCers who devoted a year or more of their lives in selfless service to the world, and who learned more from the people and organizations they served than they could ever impart.

I know, of course, that we cannot change the past or travel back in time. Sargent Shriver, as much as anyone, would insist that we look only to the future and commit to it. But if I could have done one thing differently in my life, I would have listened more carefully to the voices of people like Sargent Shriver and his cadre of Peace Corps volunteers. And maybe, just maybe, I would have made better use of my time in the fall of 1981. Everyone I have ever known who spent time in the Peace Corps, or LVC, or many of the other outstanding service organizations, have said the same thing, “It changed my life.” I cannot answer precisely why I was so clueless and unadventurous in 1981. But a touch of the Sarge would have done me some good.


  1. You were not "clueless" or "unadventurous". It takes an exceptional person who can change the course of his/her life at that young age. Most of us have student loans to be repaid and other commitments. Far from easy to make alternative choices.

  2. Steve,

    Thanks for the comment. I actually thought about that after posting this piece. One thing I did not mention was that it is always easier for someone like Shriver, who was independently wealthy (and married to a Kennedy), to devote his life to public service. I suspect that many, though by no means all, Peace Corps volunteers were from upper middle class families. For many of us, burdened as you point out with student loans and other economic realities, it is a much more difficult choice. So, perhaps I was a little tough on myself, but hindsight is always 20/20.

  3. Mark,

    When I read that Shriver was the “architect” of the War on Poverty, I was itching for a fight, considering the damage done to America by the government’s promotion of a dependency and entitlement mentality. I was doubly annoyed to see he was one of the doves that wanted the U.S. to stay out of WWII, insuring a delay that might be measurable in the millions of lives needlessly lost. But then I read this from Wikipedia: “Nevertheless, Shriver volunteered for the United States Navy before the attack on Pearl Harbor, saying he had a duty to serve his country even if he disagreed with its policies. He spent five years on active duty, mostly in the South Pacific, reaching the rank of lieutenant (O-3). He was awarded a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds he received during the bombardment of Guadalcanal.”

    They are not called the Greatest Generation for nothing and my itch is gone.

    Rich R.

  4. Don't rule out the option later in life. There are many faith-based programs who accept people of all ages. LVC, JVC and MVS as well as nearly 200 other programs are all members with Catholic Volunteer Network. Last year, over 14,000 people served in our programs both in the U.S. and in over 100 countries. You can check out all of the options on our website It's never too late!