Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, died at age 95 in Bethesda, Md. yesterday afternoon after an eight-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Shriver’s compassion affected the University, where the idea for the Peace Corps was given life by Shriver with the help of then-University graduate students Al and Judy Guskin. Plans for the program were set into motion following a speech given by Kennedy on the steps of the Michigan Union at 2 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1960.
After the Guskins rallied for support on campus, they later met with Kennedy to begin converting the idea for the Peace Corps into a realized organization. Shriver played a key role in the initial stages of the program after Kennedy advised him to work as director of the Peace Corps program— a position he held from 1961 to 1966.
In addition to his predominant role in developing the Peace Corps under the administration of his brother-in-law, former President John F. Kennedy, Shriver is also known for his work on a variety of initiatives like the War on Poverty and the Special Olympics, which he developed with his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
In a statement yesterday, President Barack Obama said Shriver will live on as a symbol of community service and humanitarianism in the United States.
“I was deeply saddened to learn about the passing of Sargent Shriver, one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation,” Obama said. “Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Sarge came to embody the idea of public service.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily last October, Judy Guskin highlighted Shriver’s strong work ethic and dedication to the program, noting that he inspired the workers in the Peace Corps office to adopt a similar attitude.
“We worked long hours,” she said. “We would stop when it got dark, and we got too hungry so we’d go out to eat, and then we’d come back and look up and see Sarge Shriver’s window was still lit. People were still working up there, so we went back to work.”
Al Guskin said in an interview last night that the Peace Corps is successful on such a widespread level because of Shriver’s undying perseverance and constant positive attitude.
“He was a great man,” Guskin said. “He was a giant, really, in terms of what he accomplished. The Peace Corps’s success is directly tied to his vision, his enthusiasm, his ability to create an organization and a structure that would outlive him, which is the greatest compliment you can make of anyone who was a leader.”
Though Guskin said he didn’t interact with Shriver much personally, he said every time he met with Shriver, he was awed by his dedication to the program.
“I didn’t know him well, though I met him at many occasions, both in this country and when I was serving in Thailand, and he was always full of enthusiasm,” Guskin said. “He was always so positive, particularly about the Peace Corps volunteers.”
Judy Guskin echoed her husband’s sentiments yesterday, saying that it was Shriver’s unwavering optimism that allowed the Peace Corps to flourish.
“Of all the people I met and had an opportunity to work with, he was the most inspiring,” Judy Guskin said. “I loved his optimism and with his message of service he touched the hearts of thousands of Peace Corps volunteers.”
John Greisberger, director of the University’s International Center and a former Peace Corps volunteer, said Shriver was “an amazing individual,” who often expressed his fondness for the University community’s critical role in contributing to the program.
“That challenge was really picked up by our students here at Michigan, and what Shriver said is that the Peace Corps would just be another idea if it weren’t for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty,” Greisberger said.
Since the program’s founding, almost 2,200 University graduates have participated in the Peace Corps in more than 44 countries, according to the University’s Peace Corps website.
Judy Guskin said she also had the opportunity to work with Shriver on the War on Poverty, several years after they first collaborated during the Peace Corps’s inaugural venture to Thailand.
“I was lucky to work for him both through Peace Corps when it was set up and also the war on poverty,” Judy Guskin said. “It was a great, great pleasure.”
Judy Guskin said that in honor of Shriver’s hard work in developing the program, she and other volunteers helped to develop The Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service, which is awarded by the National Peace Corps Association each year to a returned volunteer who continues to work toward humanitarian efforts.
“That was one of the ways we felt as volunteers we could let him know how much we appreciated the inspiration he gave to all of us,” Judy Guskin said. “He will live on in memory, and I think I speak here for all the volunteers who were touched by him.”
Rackham student Alex Pompe, a former campus coordinator at the University’s Peace Corps office, said he was constantly reminded of Shriver and Kennedy’s original message while working for the Peace Corps, especially during the 50th anniversary celebration of the program this past fall.
“The loss of such an amazing person is really felt throughout the Peace Corps community at the University of Michigan,” he said.