Sargent Shriver, founding director of Peace Corps, dies at 95
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 12:00 AM
R. Sargent Shriver, who was tapped to create the Peace Corps by his brother-in-law John F. Kennedy and crafted 1960s-era programs that remain cornerstones in the federal government's efforts to combat poverty, died Jan. 18 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, a family spokesman said. He was 95 and had Alzheimer's disease.
A Yale-educated lawyer from a prominent Maryland family, Mr. Shriver was a businessman and aspiring political leader when he married Eunice Kennedy in the early 1950s.
He served in three presidential administrations, including a stint as U.S. ambassador to France, and ran for president and vice president. His ambitions were as much propelled as they were frustrated by his connection to his in-laws, the powerful political dynasty from Massachusetts.
When the family received word in 1964 that President Lyndon B. Johnson was considering Mr. Shriver as a running mate, Eunice balked. "No," she reportedly said, and then invoked her brother Robert's name. "It's Bob's turn."
Kennedy aide Ken O'Donnell was more straightforward, telling Mr. Shriver that if any of the inner circle were to run, it would be Bobby - not "half a Kennedy."
Still, it was Mr. Shriver's status as an almost-Kennedy that landed him the role for which he is perhaps best known, as the leader of the Peace Corps during its infancy.
The program sends Americans to developing countries to volunteer in schools, farm fields and community projects. Initially a Kennedy campaign promise, the Peace Corps is approaching its 50th anniversary and has become one of the most enduring symbols of the idealism of the early 1960s.
No one has been more identified with its success than Mr. Shriver, who led the Peace Corps for its first five years, from 1961 to 1966. He was such a driving force during the agency's early years that many thought the program had been his idea.
Instead, Mr. Shriver recalled, President Kennedy had chosen him to lead the new agency because "everyone in Washington seemed to think that the Peace Corps was going to be the biggest fiasco in history, and it would be much easier to fire a relative than a friend."
Mr. Shriver helped establish the corps as the fastest-growing peacetime agency in U.S. history, sending more than 14,500 volunteers to 55 countries by 1966. He embraced his role as the leader of a band of idealistic volunteers, enduring endless jeep rides and at least three cases of dysentery as he traveled more than 350,000 miles to visit outposts in dozens of countries.
Mr. Shriver displayed an indefatigably sunny charisma, telling a reporter that despite the discomforts, "I have the best damned job in government."
A legacy of service
After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Mr. Shriver continued to run the Peace Corps and accepted Johnson's invitation to direct the War on Poverty as leader of the new Office of Economic Opportunity.