A Remarkable Leader, Sargent Shriver, Founder of the Peace Corps

Shriver, the founder of the Peace Corps and a tireless crusader against poverty and injustice, passed away this week at the age of 95.   I never met him personally, but I felt like I knew him, and my life is much the richer for it. Four days after my college graduation, in 1982, I was in Morocco, training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.   I had always wanted to live abroad, to immerse myself in a very foreign language and culture, and to serve, to make a tangible positive difference in the lives of people around me.  Peace Corps was a natural path for me, and it strongly shaped my life.

The original idea for the Peace Corps was suggested by John Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign.  In an impromptu speech to University of Michigan students at 2am on October 14, 1960, Kennedy asked a group of University of Michigan college students, whether they would be willing to serve as doctors or engineers in developing countries.

As happens with the best ideas, the students took the candidate at his word, and circulated a petition that very night.  Hundreds of University of Michigan students signed the petition, and the idea took on a life of its own.  When Kennedy came into office, he needed to find a person who could create this new and very different agency.  He chose his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, joking that it would be easier to fire a relative than a political colleague.

Shriver face and shoulders

Shriver, a Chicago businessman, approached his task with a combination of imagination, exuberance, and drive.  While the State department advised studies and a slow approach to establishing the corps, Shriver moved fast, speaking to every member of Congress about the idea and beginning a strong tradition of bipartisan support of the Peace Corps.  The first Volunteers left for Ghana and Tanzania in August 1961, a month before Congress formally authorized the program.  By 1963 there were 7300 Volunteers serving in 44 countries.

Shriver was an inspiration to these Volunteers.  He traveled ceaselessly, visiting prime ministers and Volunteers with equal enthusiasm.  He slept on the floors of modest huts that the Volunteers lived in.   He embodied the conviction that idealistic young persons could make a difference in the world.

I joined the Peace Corps fifteen years after Shriver had left, but his spirit was still very strong in the organization.   I came into Peace Corps training a pretty green twenty-one year old.  Ten weeks later, I could speak good enough Arabic to haggle, argue, compliment, debate, and befriend.  I developed a deep understanding of Moroccan culture, an understanding, which has given me patience and hope in this current era of tension between the West and Islam.

In the twenty-five years since I left Morocco, my career has been about improving children’s well-being in the developing world.  I spent eight years with Save the Children in West Africa, then nine years heading up the Dutch Bernard van Leer Foundation focused on disadvantaged young children worldwide, and today I am the executive director of the Firelight Foundation, a foundation working to improve the well-being of children made vulnerable by AIDS and poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.   In all of this work, my Peace Corps experience is never far from my mind.  And throughout my career Sargent Shriver has served as a model for the sort of leader I would like to be.

Because of Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps began its existence with inspiration and credibility, and today two hundred thousand Americans have had the opportunity to serve, not only during their two years as a Volunteer, but also over the rest of their careers.  Shriver’s legacy is truly one to celebrate.