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Recalling the Life and Legacy of Sargent Shriver

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Maurice Elias and Jamie Price
March 25, 2021

Ten years ago this past week, we bade farewell to a public servant with extraordinary accomplishments: R. Sargent Shriver. No one has a record equal to that of Sargent Shriver when it comes to creating lasting organizational structures to promote social justice, equality, peace and dignity in the United States and around the world. This is not hyperbole. His leadership and methods contain important lessons to invigorate our spirit of public service and commitment to pursuing the public good.

Just over 60 years ago, Shriver was asked by President John Kennedy to create what came to be known as the Peace Corps. Behind the success of the Peace Corps lay principles for public service that have stood the test of time, not only in this organization but in many others that Shriver inspired and led: trust, vision, courage and persistence. Consistently over his long career, Shriver perceived emerging needs, envisioned solutions, had the courage to advocate those solutions and then had the persistence to create the organizational and political support to implement them. The Peace Corps, Head Start, Special Olympics (with his wife and partner Eunice Kennedy Shriver), Legal Services for the Poor, VISTA, Foster Grandparents, Community Health Centers and other efforts to improve the lives of millions of people all testify to the effectiveness of these principles.

In the early years of the Peace Corps, some volunteers suffered injury and several died. A larger number returned home. Calls to close down the program were shrill. But Shriver never relented on the principles that the Peace Corps embodied. Fueled by his faith, his own parents’ activism, and fundamental lessons learned during the Great Depression and in battle in World War II, he believed deeply that people will rise to the occasion when given the opportunity and structure to serve and a clear sense that one’s service will have a valuable impact.

He openly pledged that his team would learn to improve selection and preparation of and support for volunteers, and did so. The vast majority of volunteers carried out their work in ways that impressed their hosts. The conduct of their character and their social and emotional abilities mattered at least as much as their skills in engineering, agriculture, construction, education or health care. More than 235,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps, in over 141 countries.

Sargent Shriver is arguably among the most creative and articulate public administrators ever to serve the American people. When he faced skepticism, resistance or warnings of too much risk, Shriver pressed on. If he did not like things the way they were, Shriver reinvented them. He broke new ground, went in the opposite direction, turned expectations on their head and felt driven to do so in the spirit of continuous improvement. Every program Shriver created bears evidence of remarkable effort, extraordinary vision, doggedness to find practical solutions and a commitment to a normative method of peacebuilding and social change. He was a consummate team builder.

The essential ideas animating Shriver’s approach were at once grand and practical. He would inspire people young and old to make a contribution beyond themselves. They were asked to link their energies to a larger purpose, see the connection of their lives to that of others, and take actions that would strengthen many, beyond what they could see and experience directly. All of his programs were deigned to affirm and respect the dignity of their recipients. They were intended to provide the services and supports that enable people to help themselves and in so doing, to advance the public good. Shriver’s efforts were fundamentally anti-bureaucratic and entrepreneurial—and where necessary, anti-establishment. He rarely played it “safe.”

Shriver believed that the our government, community and private institutions, especially our schools and colleges, must, “Ask our children not just to talk,” but also to act, serve and live in accordance with a set of higher values and with a, “Buoyant optimism.” Shriver decried a, “Famine of the spirit,” and proposed, as a realistic solution, bringing people together to break down hierarchies and create genuine interactions based on common humanity toward. He had a goal of freeing human beings from injustice and inequities. Sargent Shriver gave institutional substance to these ideals that led to, and unleashed, waves of human action that are still being felt today.  

Shriver, who passed away in January 2011 at the age of 95, was interviewed on CNN prior to the serious advancement of his Alzheimer’s disease. He was asked about the legacy he would like to leave. “My legacy is that when someone tells you that you can’t do something, it’s rubbish,” he said. The world was not clamoring for most of his innovations, but literally millions of people have led better lives because of them. Shriver believed that leadership could and must come from many and not just those with formal leadership positions; there is simply too much to do, with too much importance. If we agree, then a primary challenge for our current and aspiring civic leaders is to create structures for broad, genuine, dignified participation in civic life.

Sargent Shriver has left us clear guidance along the path of invigorating the spirit of public service and rekindling the commitment to the public good that has been the hallmark of our democracy when we have been at our best. Those creating social institutions based on Sargent Shriver’s principles will leave their own indelible, positive mark on humanity.


Maurice Elias is the director of the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab and professor of psychology, at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J.

Maurice Elias

Rutgers University
Psychology DepartmentNew Brunswick, NJ

[email protected]

Jamie Price is executive of the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute in Washington, D.C.

Jamie Price
Executive Director
Sargent Shriver Peace Institute
Arlington, VA

[email protected]

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