January 23, 2011
Column: Last Words
Photos: Rachel Lincoln/DC Spotlight Newspaper
As I prepared to attend the funeral mass of Sargent Shriver on Saturday morning, I took a moment to reflect on the week before. On the day that Shriver died, I sent my condolences to Tim and Anthony Shriver, because I had personally worked with them on the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Challenge in October of last year. The EKS Challenge afforded me the opportunity to see both Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s legacy of service up close through the work their children continue to do today. Tim and Anthony’s relentless optimism and unabashed idealism puzzled and delighted me. In my mind, I questioned if they were honestly that optimistic and sincerely that positive. I had studied Eunice’s life and watched her many times during interviews with Oprah Winfrey and others, which gave me insight into their sister’s (Maria) role model. However, I knew that often men take their cues from their fathers. I had read short bios on Sargent, but news bios rarely capture the essence of a man’s spirit, soul and dreams. News bios give you just the facts. So, my questions remained unanswered. Where did the boys in the Shriver family get their optimism, positivity and confidence in the good in the world?
I arrived to Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac, Maryland on Saturday morning, prepared to grieve for a man who — according to news reports I had seen and read throughout my life — was a man of means who devoted himself to public service and helping those of little means. I was in a mournful, respectful mode. I was prepared for tears and sadness, as is the custom at most funerals. Yet, anyone who knows Anthony, Sargent’s youngest son, could never envision him sending his dad off “to be with Mummy” in tears. As the youngest, Anthony was given the coveted prize of speaking first. Many had often spoken of Sargent’s joie de vivre (joy of life), and Anthony encapsulated it. His joy, laughter and ability to see the humor in life were testaments to his father. He summarized the funeral’s speaking line-up of his brothers and sister by noting that each had been given about 3 minutes to speak, but all would definitely go over their time limit. Of his brother who would give part of the eulogy, Anthony stated that Mark had been given unlimited time to speak, but that he would surely surpass even that amount of time. The audience laughed and clapped. Anthony recalled one of the last conversations he had with his father. He remembered leaning down as his father called him close to say something “important”. Anthony leaned closer and Sargent exclaimed, “You tell Cardinal Wuerl to make Eunice a saint!” The crowd of mourners burst into laughter. This was the beginning of a funeral mass that became a place of joy.
As the ceremony continued, Tim reflected on his father’s style, Maria reflected on his passionate, unending love for his wife and their “mummy” and Bobby remembered a father who remained loyal to a son who erred in judgment in experimenting with marijuana as a child. Mark concluded by stating that Sargent was in love with two things in life: “his wife and God.”
In his eulogy, former President Clinton recalled giving Sargent the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he asked the question: “Could anyone really be that good?” Clinton further concluded that Sargent was really “that good.” “He showed up every day and found joy in life,” Clinton remarked. Vice President, Joe Biden spoke of Sargent as a true example of a “man” who displayed his unending love for his wife, Eunice.
The large multiracial crowd of mourners in the packed church was an indication of all the lives that were touched by Sargent’s service to others. I remember attending Head Start at age 4 and getting my first experience with other races and cultures in school. Head Start was one of the programs that Sargent helped create in the 1960s and what a great program it was for me at age 4. My mother was one of the first Head Start teachers in Mississippi. Head Start was the place where I developed my first friendship with someone of a different race. I believe and know that experience shape my life in every way. I am multicultured, inclusive and embracing of all races, because of that pivotal experience in Head Start. I remember growing up with dreams of traveling to Africa or Mexico as a Peace Corps volunteer. With that same spirit, I went on to devote 5 years of my life as a volunteer in service with many programs in United Way.
As a child, I did not know of the man who helped found the Peace Corps and inspired me so, but now I know. Now I know why Sargent preached that anyone can be great, because “anyone can serve.” Now I know where Anthony and Tim, as well as Maria, Bobby and Mark get their optimism, idealism, hope and joie de vivre. As Tim heads the Special Olympics, Anthony heads Best Buddies, Maria works on initiatives to fight Alzheimer’s, Bobby fights AIDS and other diseases in countries like Africa and Mark spearheads Save the Children, I get a clear picture of why Vice President Biden described Sargent as a true “man”. So many men walk out of this life and never achieve that coveted title. I was there on Saturday to testify that Sargent Shriver, in my opinion, had exceeded every expectation of what a man could be and then more. After 95 years of a life devoted to God and years of service devoted to others, maybe Sargent was wrong. Maybe Cardinal Wuerl should make him a saint.
Some of the attendees included Vanessa Williams, who sang “Soon and Very Soon”. Bono of U2 and Irish singer Glen Hansard sang “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” from the Prayer of St. Francis. Wyclef Jean sang Psalms 98 as the mourners clapped along. Sargent’s casket was carried out of the church by his children as a jubilant choir sang “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder played the harmonica.
Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Ted Leonsis, Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Chris Matthews, Marian Wright Edelman, Steve and Cokie Roberts, Russell Simmons and Nancy Pelosi.