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A Legacy of Service

Clint Reilly

“It is well to be prepared for life as it is. But it is better to be prepared to make life better than it is.”

R. Sargent Shriver

California’s First Lady, Maria Shriver, turned heads when she joined Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy at a recent rally to endorse Barack Obama for president. A Republican governor’s spouse supporting a liberal Democrat would normally evoke a loud outcry from conservatives and skepticism from the press. But Maria Shriver’s mother is Eunice Kennedy – sister of President John F. Kennedy. Her bloodlines go back to Camelot.

A lifetime lived in proximity to one of the 20th century’s great political dynasties might have been a heavy burden for a daughter of the next generation. But Maria Shriver is living proof that great parents leave an indelible imprint on a child.

Eunice Kennedy
, barely 20 years old, began a life of public service when she volunteered to teach in Harlem schools. At 25, she led a federal justice department program on juvenile delinquency. A smart, tough woman committed to advocacy for the poor and greater understanding of mentally disabled children, Kennedy herself might have been a candidate for public office in another time and in a family less focused on the destinies of its male heirs. Ultimately, she founded the Special Olympics – a program that has given joy and hope to millions of the physically impaired and their families.

At the age of 31, she married a 38-year-old businessman who oversaw The Chicago Merchandise Mart, which was owned by her father, Joseph P. Kennedy. His name was R. Sargent Shriver.

After their marriage, Shriver became President of the Catholic Interracial Council for the Archdiocese of Chicago and President of the Chicago school board. He was deeply involved in the civil rights struggle well before his brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy, ran for president in 1960.

In fact, although Mayor Richard J. Daly is generally given credit for Kennedy’s 6,000-vote, election-clinching Illinois win over Richard Nixon, it was Shriver – chair of Kennedy’s Illinois campaign – who was the hero at the campaign’s pivotal moment.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had been jailed unjustly for violating probation on trumped up charges. Shriver convinced Kennedy to call King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and express his outrage. The call led to an election eve endorsement by King’s famous father, “Daddy King,” who was the Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. His endorsement delivered the decisive black vote to Kennedy in one of the nation’s closest presidential contests.

Highly regarded for his charisma and organizational skills, Shriver was appointed by President Kennedy to head the signature program of his “New Frontier” – The Peace Corps. Initially, the Peace Corps was only a vague plan to utilize young Americans as ambassadors of freedom. At the time, CBS commentator Eric Severaid had warned, “The Peace Corps is pure intentions supported by pure publicity.” In a few short months, however, Shriver brought the formless concept to life.

No government program in post-war America has so mobilized young Americans to voluntarily offer themselves in service. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson tapped Shriver to create and lead America’s “War on Poverty” while still heading the Peace Corps.

The Kennedy presidency captured the idealism of an entire generation of young Americans. But it was Shriver who channeled that idealism into the greatest peacetime commitment to public service America has ever known.

Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy had five children. Maria was the only daughter.

Maria Kennedy Shriver-Schwarzenegger continues her parents’ legacy of public service. Democrats, Republicans (and Arnold) – all benefit.

Comments (3)

  • What also may have been a motivating factor in Mrs. Shriver’s life was the fact that one of Mr. Joseph Kennedy’s daughters was mentally disabled.

    The Governator is lucky to have such a cool wife.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | March 4th, 2008 at 11:45 am

  • I had the pleasure of working for Mr. Shriver in the 1972 presidential campaign when he was George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate. My assignment was hotel advance for the national campaign, which entailed travelling ahead of the candidates, to set up the hotel for their arrival, co-ordinating with the campaign plane, national campaign (Gary Hart !) Secret Service, local party and local event organisers. It was heady stuff for a 22 year old and one of the most exciting jobs I ever had. Maria was 16 and Timmy 14 and actually preceeded their Dad on a couple of his campaign swings. Even at 16 Maria was a take charge girl ! Sargent Shriver was a pleasure to work for – always a kind word for staff and never short of gracious gestures. He invited me to watch the election night returns at his home in Maryland ! And what a resume – first Director of the Peace Corps and US Ambassador to France among his many accomplishments. A gentleman through and through who raised his children well, despite the glare of public life.

    On a lighter note, when I met Governor Schwarzenegger three years ago, as we shook hands, I recounted how I had known Maria before he did. His hand shake grew more insistent until I shared with him my McGovern-Shriver hotel advance days with Maria back in 1972 !

    Posted by: Jim Herlihy | March 6th, 2008 at 12:33 pm

  • Clint Reilly does a great service to our citizenry with his historical comments and insightful approach. He is a stand-up guy. I am very proud to know him as a friend and as a mover and shaker in a very decent way.

    Posted by: Ben Leal | March 7th, 2008 at 7:08 pm

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