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Sargent Shriver, founding director of Peace Corps, dies at 95

By Patricia Sullivan and Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.

A skilled navigator of the federal bureaucracy, Mr. Shriver said the war on poverty was, and would continue to be, "noisy, visible, dirty, uncomfortable and sometimes politically unpopular."

Nevertheless, under his leadership, the OEO developed and implemented signature anti-poverty programs that still exist. Among them are Head Start, which aims to prepare poor children for kindergarten; Volunteers in Service to America, the domestic Peace Corps; and Job Corps, a youth job-training program.

"It's hard to find another American figure where the disproportion between how much he accomplished and how little he is known is so large," his biographer, Scott Stossel, said in an interview with The Washington Post. "For 12 years, Sarge was always at the center stage, or just off center stage, of American history."

The handsome Mr. Shriver - who made best-dressed lists - served as U.S. ambassador to France from 1968 to 1970. Two years later, he became Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern's running mate. McGovern's earlier choice, Thomas Eagleton, left the ticket after revelations of his previous psychiatric hospitalization for depression.

Despite his people skills, Mr. Shriver made a huge gaffe on the campaign trail while visiting a bar near a steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio. Locals ordered Pabsts, Schlitzes or Buds. Mr. Shriver called out, "Make mine a Courvoisier!"

After the McGovern-Shriver ticket lost in a landslide to Republicans Richard M. Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew, Mr. Shriver ran in the 1976 Democratic presidential primaries. But he came in fifth in Iowa, third in Mississippi, fifth in New Hampshire, sixth in Massachusetts and third in Illinois. He withdrew in March 1976, ending his political career.

Kennedy connection

Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. was born Nov. 9, 1915, in Westminster, Md., to a family with deep mid-Atlantic roots. His forebears had fought in the French and Indian War and the Revolution, and Mr. Shriver's grandfather rode in the Confederate cavalry during the Civil War. His father was a banker.

"We're nicer than the Kennedys," his mother once said. "We've been here since the 1600s. We're rooted in the land of Maryland."

After attending the private Canterbury School in New Milford, Conn., Mr. Shriver entered Yale and worked on the student newspaper. After spending summers in Europe, he helped start the isolationist America First club as the world stood at the precipice of war.

"I remember in Germany and France going to church on Sunday and noticing there were no men in church between the ages of 30 and 50," he once said. "They were all dead - killed in other wars."

He graduated from Yale in 1938 and received a degree from Yale Law School in 1941. He served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, part of the time as an antiaircraft gunner on the USS South Dakota in the waters off Guadalcanal.

After the war, he became an assistant editor for Newsweek. In 1946, he met Eunice Kennedy at a party in New York, and he soon was summoned to her father's suite at the Waldorf Astoria.

Businessman and former ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy wanted the young editor to assess for publication diary entries written by his eldest son, who had been killed on a military mission during World War II. When Mr. Shriver reported back that he didn't think the papers were publishable, Kennedy agreed.

Two weeks later, Kennedy offered Mr. Shriver a job and in the late 1940s made him a manager of Chicago's Merchandise Mart, the world's largest office building at the time. Mr. Shriver continued to date Eunice on and off for years, eventually marrying the boss's daughter in 1953.

"She's a hard person to sell - tough as her father," Mr. Shriver once said of his wife, who later started the organization that became the Special Olympics.

They settled in a large duplex in Chicago, where Mr. Shriver rose through the political ranks, serving as president of the school board and president of the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago.

His name was bandied about as a gubernatorial candidate, but around Easter 1960, Stossel's book says, the elder Kennedy summoned Mr. Shriver. "What's this I hear about you running for governor?" he asked.

Mr. Shriver said he hadn't decided yet. "Under no circumstances are you to run," the elder Kennedy said, noting that it was to be "Jack's year" and that JFK would need Mr. Shriver's help to become president.

During the campaign, he advised Kennedy to reach out to Coretta Scott King after her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was jailed in Georgia. Some on the campaign worried that linking himself to such a controversial figure would alienate white voters, but Kennedy took his advice and called Coretta King.

That show of support for the civil rights movement was credited with helping Kennedy win many black votes.

After his political career drew to a close, Mr. Shriver became a senior partner in the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. He also served as president and chairman of the board of the Special Olympics.

Mr. Shriver had largely withdrawn from public life as his Alzheimer's had progressed in recent years.

His daughter, former television journalist Maria Shriver - who is married to actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger - has testified before Congress about the ravages of the disease. She also published a 2004 children's book, "What's Happening to Grandpa?"

Eunice Shriver died in 2009. Besides Maria Shriver, survivors include four other children, Robert Sargent Shriver III of Santa Monica, Calif., former Maryland delegate Mark Kennedy Shriver of Bethesda, Timothy Perry Shriver of Chevy Chase and Anthony Paul Shriver of Miami; and 19 grandchildren.

In 1994, Mr. Shriver was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by President Bill Clinton. "In my lifetime," Clinton later said, "America has never had a stronger warrior for peace and against poverty than Sargent Shriver."

sullivanp@washpost.com browne@washpost.com

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