Letter to Peace Corps friends

    May 5, 2004

    It was a magical moment. It was an afternoon with the Shriver family, Senator Edward M. and Vicki Kennedy, and the many friends of Sargent Shriver as they honored him by presenting a panel discussion to celebrate Sarge and renew his challenge to promote peace and social justice in today’s world. It was also a time to celebrate the release of the new biography Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver written by Scott Stossel and published by Smithsonian Books.
         It was a memorable panel. Held at The World Bank and moderated by Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press, it featuring noted presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Representative Harold Ford, Jr., Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times, and RPCV Maureen Orth, Special Correspondent to Vanity Fair magazine.
         Over 400 friends of Sarge filled the Preston Auditorium to recall the great career of this great man. Shriver has been an inspiration to generations of Americans as the creator of the Peace Corps, and Director of the War on Poverty who started Job Corps, Head Start, Foster Grandparents, and Legal Neighborhood Services. In his public life he was also Ambassador to France and head of the Special Olympics. It has been a career that spanned 60 years, changed the lives of thousands of people and influenced the world for the better.
         Michael Beschloss highlighted Sargent Shriver’s role in “helping President Johnson become his best self.” Thomas Friedman spoke not only of what Sarge has already done, but how he is influencing the world today. Friedman focused on five characteristics of Shriver’s contribution to the world.

    • Creating institutions like the Peace Corps to promote peace.
    • Exporting hope to the world, not fear.
    • Building collaborative peace efforts throughout the world.
    • Becoming a global citizen.
    • Being a creative person in a time of tragedy.

    In living this life of service, Friedman said, “Sargent Shriver has been a role model for the world.”
         Maureen Orth in her touching remarks called Sargent Shriver her “George Washington” and spoke of the early days in the development of the Peace Corps when the agency gave the world a new verb, “to shriverize,” meaning to speed up and to imagine creatively. Maureen, who served in Colombia during the 1960s, gave Sarge credit for “training women and men exactly the same,” and then she named an honor role of successful women who got their start in life by joining the Peace Corps.
         She personalized her story by speaking eloquently about her service when she started a school in Medellin, Colombia that was named in her honor — Escuela Marina Orth. Upon returning years later she saw that her school had been improved and modernized, growing from two classrooms and 35 students to 120 children in grades one through five. During that visit she was honored for what she had given the town. “I told them,” Maureen recalled, “that the whole idea of the Peace Corps was to plant the seed so that the community could go on as they had. This was my real thanks — that they had persevered.” And all of that was because Sargent Shriver had made the Peace Corps possible.
         Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. spoke about Sargent Shriver’s pioneer work in the civil rights movement and his dedication to improving the lives of so many around the world and at home. Ford lamented that Shriver’s deft diplomatic touch is not in use today in the Middle East.
         Author Scott Stossel, for his part, recalled how when interviewing former colleagues of Sargent Shriver the most common sentence he heard was, “he changed my life, and there is nothing that I wouldn’t do for the man.” Stossel went onto say that he received hundred of letters about Shriver and all of them had similar themes: how this good man has changed the world without losing his goodness. Shriver was, everyone agreed, a role model for the future, a great man who sought out greatness in others.
         Glancing around the filled auditorium, I spotted dozens of the other “great men and women” from the generation that had started the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty, diplomats who had worked with Shriver when they were young and had gone on to successful careers in and out of government. Among the many luminaries was Harris Wofford, the former senator from Pennsylvania who had been with Shriver at the Mayflower Hotel when the Peace Corps concept was developed, and Jack Hood Vaughn, the man who followed Shriver as Director at the Peace Corps and then went on to become an Ambassador and a leading environmentalist in Latin America.
         It was touching and warm to see so many people who had worked for and loved Sargent Shriver come back to honor and recall with him a time in their lives when they believed they could change the world for good.
         And for one lovely spring afternoon in Washington, D.C., in that small corner of the world just blocks away from where the Peace Corps first started, many in that crowded auditorium still believe it is possible to do and make peace, and as these women and men from “our greatest generation” once said, “lets go shriverize the world!” We say, yes! We have come, as Sarge keeps reminding us, “to serve, serve, serve.”


    Laurette Bennhold-Samaan (PC/W staff: 1994-2001) was the first cross-cultural specialist with the Peace Corps, and the co-author, with Craig Storti (Morocco 1970-72), of Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workshop. Prior to working at the Peace Corps, she served as a Senior Associate for Expatriation and Repatriation Programs for the World Group. Today, Laurette works for The World Bank as the Manager of the African Global Mobility Program.