Remembering Sargent Shriver

Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law of John, Bobby, and Ted Kennedy, founding director of the Peace Corps, and one-time Democratic vice-presidential nominee (among numerous other accomplishments), passed away this week. I only met him once in person, but we exchanged phone calls and a series of letters regarding our shared interest in Catholic history, and I came to consider him a friend. He was one of the dwindling number of prominent pro-life liberals in the United States. I am sorry to see him go.

Sarge was born in Westminster, Maryland, to Robert and Hilda Shriver. Robert was a Republican Protestant, while Hilda was a Catholic Democrat. The family’s moderate wealth came from manufacturing and banking enterprises, and it enabled Sarge to attend the best schools. He won a scholarship to a Catholic prep school in Connecticut, where he first met his future presidential brother-in-law. After that, he attended Yale and graduated with honors. He then earned a Yale law degree and joined the Navy just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served as an officer on battleships and submarines in the Atlantic and the Pacific. He was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries he sustained at Guadalcanal.

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After the war, Sarge met Eunice Kennedy, and her father soon thereafter hired him to run the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. After a seven-year courtship, Eunice and Sarge were married by Francis Cardinal Spellman at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

While in Chicago, Sarge was appointed to the city’s Board of Education and a year later became its president. He also became president of the Catholic Interracial Council, which fought discrimination in housing, education, and other aspects of city life. His name was soon being bandied about as a potential gubernatorial candidate. Fearing that such a campaign would interfere with John Kennedy’s presidential run, however, Sarge did not pursue the office. In the following few decades, Sarge was constantly involved in public service and politics, though he would again pass on political opportunities so as not to interfere with Kennedy plans.

Sarge is widely regarded as the architect of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. He also served as ambassador to France, was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1972, and made a brief primary run for president in 1976. All of this was done while he and Eunice were raising five children (who have continued the family tradition of public service and dedication to philanthropy). Late in life, Sarge was active in the Special Olympics, a program founded by his wife for mentally disabled athletes.


I met Sarge around 2001. He had read the first edition of my book Hitler, the War, and the Pope, and he sent me a letter expressing his admiration for it, saying that the facts and logic were unassailable. Naturally, I was flattered, and I wrote back to him. We exchanged several letters and phone calls, and he eventually invited me to meet with him. I flew to Washington with my publisher, Wil Colom of Genesis Press.

We met in Sarge’s office at the Special Olympics Headquarters. He was very gracious; in fact, he ordered more than 300 copies of my book so that he could provide copies to most of the bishops in the United States. He also proposed several ideas to get it more attention, even suggesting getting an endorsement from Billy Graham. At first he had trouble remembering Graham’s name, and he called him something like “that Protestant guy you have down there in the South.” I did not know who he was talking about, but Wil (a Protestant himself) guessed correctly. I remember thinking that only someone with the connections of a Sargent Shriver would dare consider asking Billy Graham for an endorsement; I never acted on it.

Sarge and I continued to exchange letters and phone calls after the visit, but I could tell that he was beginning to falter. A call from his secretary one day informed me that he was getting confused about things. I think I wrote him another letter or two, but we did not speak again on the phone.

Even in his decline, Sarge continued to serve. In 2004, his daughter Maria Shriver published a book titled, What’s Happening to Grandpa? It dealt with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, from which Sarge was then suffering. In 2009 (the year Eunice passed away), Maria was the executive producer of a segment of an HBO documentary on Alzheimer’s titled, “Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am?

As is made clear in his biography, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, Sarge had high ideals, a strong Catholic piety, a solid commitment to family, and an unusual gift for leadership. As Colman McCarthy wrote in the National Catholic Reporter in 2002, his record of public service and innovation was “unmatched by any contemporary leader in or out of government.” He was also simply a great individual. May he rest in peace.


  • Ronald J. Rychlak

    Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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