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Peace Corps builder built his own life on giving

It took only a walk with Sargent Shriver to learn how deeply loved and loving he was. Former Peace Corps volunteers, from the early days of the program that he began in 1961, or ones just back from stints in Third World outposts, would stop Sarge to thank him, embrace him and tell him stories about their life-changing service.

Countless others approached him on airport concourses, city sidewalks and elsewhere: people whose lives were changed because of the anti-poverty programs that Shriver started in the Johnson administration. Or the parents of children in Special Olympics, the program begun by Shriver and his wife, Eunice, that revolutionized the way we treat those with mental disabilities.

At his death Tuesday, after years of Alzheimer's disease, the legions with whom Shriver had shared himself were no doubt recalling those chance run-ins as encounters with grace.

It was certainly that way for me. In the summer of 1966, I was roaming the country writing freelance articles about the civil rights movement. I sold a story to the National Catholic Reporter and Sarge happened to read it. He tracked me down, not to jab back about the program of his I had criticized, but to say that he had a staff opening for "a no-man, because I already have enough yes-men." He was running the newly created Office of Economic Opportunity and needed help with speeches, he said.

For the make-or-break interview, we went to dinner. For four hours, the talk was not about pending legislation, but theology and spirituality. Shriver, amazingly, wanted to discuss Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Hans Kung, Tertullian, Leon Bloy, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and others. A couple of times I couldn't keep up, as when he riffed on the differences between the early, middle and late writings of Saint Teresa of Avila.

At dinner's end, Sarge hired me. A spirited public orator, he needed a speechwriter like Stradivarius needed help stringing violins. Once at work, I learned that I wasn't the only one with a background in religion. He was hiring so many former nuns and priests that the OEO could have stood for Office of Ecclesiastical Outcasts.

Sarge's Catholicism infused his thinking, as when he said in 1981 at a reunion of Peace Corps volunteers: "The cure is care. Caring for others is the practice of peace. Caring becomes as important as curing. Caring produces the cure, not the reverse."

For four decades, Sarge was my closest friend outside of my family. I said goodbye to him a few days ago during a visit at his apartment. I thanked him for everything. He had difficulty speaking, so he communicated by reaching for my hand. He kissed it and held it for half an hour, without a word between us. None was needed. He was saying that he loved me, the way he told all those people at airports and byways that they, too, were lovable.


Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Washington Post.

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