The country’s greatest political dynasty lost one of its last, most warmly regarded figures Tuesday. Sargent Shriver, perhaps best known now as the father of Maria Shriver, died at age 95 after a years-long decline due to Alzheimer’s.
“Our dad, Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr., lovingly known as ‘Sarge,’ today went to heaven to join the love of his life, our mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. He was surrounded by his five children, five children in-law, and his 19 grandchildren,” the family said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.
“He was a man of giant love, energy, enthusiasm, and commitment. He lived to make the world a more joyful, faithful, and compassionate place. He centered everything on his faith and his family. He worked on stages both large and small but in the end, he will be best known for his love of others,” the statement continues. “No one ever came into his presence without feeling his passion and his enthusiasm for them. He loved God, he loved Eunice, he loved us, he loved anyone who was a servant of peace, justice or joy. He loved life.”
The first director of the Peace Corps and at one point the head of the Special Olympics (founded by his wife, Eunice Kennedy, who died in 2009), he was a public servant in an almost classical mode – scrupulous, enthusiastic, hard-working and not too worried about the glory.
“For years,” Maria once said, “I watched children study famous people in history. I always thought they should be studying my father. In my family, everybody talked about what we are doing to change the world. And Daddy would say, ‘How can I do all this in a responsible, ethical, honest way?’ And he always managed to do it.”
If he didn’t have the silvery élan of his Kennedy in-laws – a Maryland native, Yale Law graduate and submarine officer in World War II, he married President John F. Kennedy’s sister Eunice in 1953 – he was a vital figure in American politics for half a century. Shriver came close to occupying the vice presidency when he was a last-minute choice by Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972.
But it was as an unstinting and smart addition to the Kennedy clan that he will be remembered for. Sometimes referred to in the press as “Mr. Clean” for his ceaseless work (he didn’t care for the title), he helped assemble Kennedy’s cabinet and, most famously, set up the Peace Corps. He worked on Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and was involved in launching Head Start, VISTA, the Job Corps, Community Action, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents and Legal Services for the Poor. He also served as ambassador to France.
Playing second-fiddle to the Kennedys did have its drawbacks. According to the 1994 biography Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver by Scott Stossel, the family vetoed the notion of him becoming Lyndon Johnson’s running partner in 1964. But the Shrivers were guided by their own family priorities. Spared the tragedies that seemed to haunt the clan, according to a CBS profile in 1994, they created a stable household of five children: Robert Sargent Shriver III, Maria Shriver, Timothy Shriver, Mark Shriver and Anthony Shriver. There are now 19 grandchildren.
“I’m so hopeful that people will understand the Shriver legacy,” Maria has said, “not as much as the Kennedy legacy, because it doesn’t have the same sex appeal. But it’s a solid legacy.”
That legacy of activism continued as Maria campaigned for greater awareness of Alzheimer’s as her father’s condition worsened. She even wrote a children’s book about it called What’s Happening to Grandpa? By then, he no longer recognized her.
When Larry King asked her, “It is the long goodbye, is it not?” she answered, “You can look at it as a goodbye or you can look at it as a brand new hello every day, which is the way I choose to look at it.”
That would have been his perspective, too.