Ky. Voices: Shriver still touching Kentucky lives

Sargent Shriver, accompanied by the author, greeted members of Louisville's St. Stephen Martyr school choir in the state Capitol during a 1991 visit.
Sargent Shriver, accompanied by the author, greeted members of Louisville's St. Stephen Martyr school choir in the state Capitol during a 1991 visit.

On a sunny October day in 1991, a silver-haired man in a crumpled suit and squinting in the light walked from a plane at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport. Once inside the terminal, he held his briefcase on his knee, banged it twice and shook his head in frustration. State Rep. Steve Riggs and I, there to greet him, wondered in silence why a man of means, a member of America's aristocratic Kennedy family, would be fighting a broken latch on his tattered, aged briefcase.

In a flash he focused on the two of us with a white-tooth smile and a curiosity about the day's agenda.

Sargent Shriver — founder of the Peace Corps, first director of the War on Poverty, candidate for vice president and president, negotiator of America's No First Strike Policy, ambassador to France and chairman of the International Special Olympics for people with intellectual disabilities — had come to Kentucky to testify in favor of legislation to establish the Kentucky Peace Corps.

It was also a day to celebrate some of his multiple achievements, most notably the Peace Corps. Since 1962, hundreds of Kentuckians had served in foreign lands, often under harsh conditions, as one-to-one goodwill ambassadors. Riggs and I invited these men and women to the state Capitol to meet Shriver and share how their lives were altered for good because of the Peace Corps. They did not hesitate to do so, in the process showering him with gratitude for creating, in his words, a "formula for practical idealism."

Many of these volunteers had gone on to careers of public service, including former attorney general and now Jefferson Circuit Judge Fred Cowen and former state Rep. and U.S. Rep Mike Ward.

It is difficult to imagine a life of more "practical idealism" than Shriver's, which ended last week at age 95.

Prior to starting the Peace Corps, he helped work out racial desegregation plans for the Chicago public and Catholic school systems in the 1950s. Term-limiting himself as head of the Peace Corps, Shriver was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as the first director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was the Pentagon in the War on Poverty.

In this role, he started Head Start to foster early learning for poor children, the Job Corps to train thousands with skills so they could feed their families, Legal Aid Societies for those shut out of the courts because they could not afford legal fees, Foster Grandparent programs to creatively connect the generations and the Community Action Agencies to organize and give power to people in poor neighborhoods.

Later, he helped negotiate the important No First Strike Policy endorsed by senior U.S. foreign policy officials and the American Catholic bishops. This policy stands today as a safeguard for the world.

But on that clear Kentucky autumn day nearly 20 years ago, Shriver did not want to focus on his past. Instead, he lit up the committee room proclaiming the opportunities for more people to serve those in the shadows of life. He strongly supported our Kentucky Peace Corps legislation as a means to engage people in the noble act of caring for one another. And he extolled the merits of the International Special Olympics as a shining example of how the simple acts of respect and love for those different from us can transform a human being.

In the Capitol rotunda, the St. Stephen Martyr School choir from Louisville sang Let There Be Peace on Earth as a tribute to Shriver, and we made him a Kentucky Colonel. The Kentucky Peace Corps bill passed the legislature five months later, but the program was quickly eclipsed by President Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps program a year after that, which accomplished many of the same goals.

Across our commonwealth, you can see the indelible handprints of Robert Sargent Shriver. Former Peace Corps volunteers continue to challenge our xenophobia and parochialism. Head Start programs keep preparing youngsters for the challenge of a 21st century education.

The Job Corps is still teaching skills to hundreds. Legal Aid services struggle financially but, in every corner of the state, the poor can have a crack at justice within the system. Foster grandparent programs keep growing as seniors mentor and love children at risk; and community action agencies everywhere still speak for the poor in a flawed capitalist economy that shuts out the weak.

And in hollers and farms and city ghettos and suburban neighborhoods, you will find Kentuckians with intellectual disabilities who beam as they show you the medals won in Special Olympics events.

Sargent Shriver's visit here was but a few short hours two decades ago. Even though he will be laid to rest this week, his presence will remain for generations. Thank you, good and faithful servant. Enjoy your reward.