When I was a junior or senior at Barnard College, at that time the place women who wanted to go to Columbia went, Sargent Shriver came to speak on the Columbia Campus. Before he spoke, I had found the idea of the Peace Corps appealing but frightening. You could go to India or some poor African or Latin American country. I thought of snakes in trees and filthy water and chronic diseases picked up while you were sweating under a tropical sun. Sargent Shriver must have hypnotized his entire audience, because I think most people, who started out with forbidding reservations like mine were determined to go by the time he finished talking. He gave us to understand that life could be rich and exciting and joyful if we didn’t just do safe things, that in fact doing safe things was the cowardly choice. He helped us to see that faraway places, places we thought of in those days as dangerous or primitive, had all kinds of wonderful things to teach us. He told us that our experience would do more for us than it ever did for the people we went to serve.
So I went home and told my parents I was going to join the Peace Corps. They were aghast, as was my college advisor who said the Peace Corps was for people who wanted to “escape”. He wanted me to go to graduate school. Finally I agreed to work for a year before deciding whether I would apply. So after graduation and a summer in Europe, I got a job at LIFE magazine and sometime around Christmas, I applied to the Peace Corps and ended up not only in the Peace Corps but with a new husband in Uganda.
Sargent Shriver was right. It wasn’t simply his charisma, which he had in buckets, that led us to far off and interesting places, it was his awareness of what made lives worthwhile which he could communicate to a packed auditorium as well as if he were speaking to each one of us by ourselves.
And as Scott Sossel, Shriver's biographer says, it isn’t simply that Shriver was a product of his times. He was an extraordinary man, committed and compelling and devoted to doing good. He was as Stossel says, a Catholic who tried to model his life in some ways at least after the life Jesus lived. What we can remember today in these cynical times is that Jesus also lived in what might be termed cynical times, times which were very difficult for the downtrodden, for the Jews, not only against other groups, but among themselves. For me, Shriver’s legacy is that indeed one should try to live one’s life as if it mattered. One should, Christian or not, remember Shriver’s impact and Jesus’s on his followers.
This link is to a wonderful commemoration to Sargent Shriver by Sossel, in the Atlantic Montly wehre he is an associate editor.