Sargent Shriver, public servant

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"When our deeds match our ideals, we will be living life as it ought to be lived," R. Sargent Shriver was fond of saying. He wasn't talking about himself, but he might have been - it's an apt description of an admirable life, which came to an end on Tuesday.

A son of Maryland and of privilege, Mr. Shriver often soared in elite circles: as a student at Yale law school, as a member of the fabled Kennedy clan, as ambassador to France, as a vice presidential nominee. A dream life, to be sure, augmented by devoted family and friends, that often led Mr. Shriver to declare himself the luckiest man on Earth.

Yet Mr. Shriver, who died Tuesday at the age of 95, will best be remembered for his unconfined dreams and indefatigable work on behalf of others, and especially on behalf of others who had been born with fewer advantages than he. Mr. Shriver never shed or shied away from his belief that service to others is at the core of a meaningful life. And he put those beliefs into practice as the first director of the Peace Corps; as co-conspirator with his wife, Eunice Shriver, in the creation of the Special Olympics; and throughout his life in contributions to the Head Start program, legal services for the poor and the "war on poverty." He held steadfast to the notion that government can be a benevolent and indispensable source of succor for those most in need.

In another era, his actions might have been interpreted as an expression of noblesse oblige, but that would do damage to his message and his legacy. Mr. Shriver insisted that all - not just the wealthy, not just the privileged - have gifts within them that allow them to help those plagued by hunger, war, disability and oppression.

It is, yes, a duty, to help, but there is more to this worthy aspiration. It is an opportunity to discover purpose, a chance for transcendence. From Mr. Shriver's perspective, public service could be the most noble of selfish pleasures. The pleasure he himself took in such service was an example that will long outlive him.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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