Shriver motivated generations to serve

Posted: Sunday, January 23, 2011

I was raised with Sargent Shriver in my house, though I didn’t realize it until later.

My parents met in Washington as young Capitol Hill staffers in the 1950s. They got swept up in the new generation of leadership and public service represented by John F. Kennedy. My mother, then a staunch Republican, but from an Irish Catholic family, changed political stripes. They attended Kennedy’s inauguration.

I grew up with big ideals as a staple of dinner table conversation — from the space program to the Peace Corps.

Early on, my mother planted in me a sense of service as adventure. I remember paging through either Time or Life magazine with her, looking at pictures of young children about my age in villages around the world with young Americans living and working with them. That was Sargent Shriver’s Peace Corps.

I joined in the 20th anniversary year. My mother was enthusiastic, my father more circumspect (“It would be fine if the Peace Corps went to Europe,” he grumbled when I announced that I would teach math in Africa).

It was then I experienced and understood Shriver’s vision. He started the Peace Corps from scratch in 1961 as the “first national, governmental initiative dedicated solely to the creation of power for peace.”

As he recounted, some opposed the word “peace” (sounding too “soft, wishy-washy, vague and weak”), while others disliked “corps” (sounding “too militaristic”). Shriver decided to use both — “’Peace’ because that was truly our business, and ‘Corps’ because it showed that we were not individualists but a group.”

Shriver saw Peace Corps service as Americans “understanding their neighbors by living in their shoes and not, to twist the metaphor, by buying them a new pair.”

He brought that same spirit to helping the poor help themselves. When President Lyndon Johnson tapped him in 1964 to create an independent agency to break the cycle of generational poverty, Shriver called it the Office of Economic Opportunity. He described it “not a program of handouts” but one that would provide “opportunities for work and education and training.” Out of this came Head Start, Upward Bound, Job Corps, Youth Corps, Neighborhood Health Services, VISTA.

Today, as Americans have become more cynical about ideals and the ability of individuals and institutions — especially government — to make a difference, Shriver’s call to service in the name of opportunity still resonates. He believed that under “a tough shell of skepticism,” young Americans had a “core of idealism” waiting to be tapped.

My father, now age 83, told me after learning of Shriver’s death Monday “he was one of the large figures of his time that contributed to the human spirit and made a difference in the lives of people, much like Franklin Roosevelt.”

I never met Sargent Shriver, but his life’s work inspired my parents and me — and will, I hope, do the same for future generations.

• Pia Lopez is associate editor of the Sacramento Bee. Readers may send her e-mail at

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