Robert Sargent Shriver

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Nonprofit Organizations
Committed to making the world a better place in which to live, and helping those most in need around the world and in our own country, Sargent Shriver has led a life of public service, compassion, and philanthropy in action.


Biographical Highlights

Robert Sargent Shriver (1915-2011) was born November 9, 1915, in Westminster, Maryland. “As an international lawyer and administrator, ambassador and an advocate for the poor and powerless, Sargent Shriver has compiled an unparalleled record of public service at every tier, from the local level to the world community” (Medal of Freedom).

“A graduate of Yale Law School (1940), Shriver served as a U.S. naval officer during World War II, and, after a brief association with a Wall Street law firm, he went to work as an assistant editor for Newsweek magazine in 1946. That same year he met millionaire Joseph P. Kennedy, who two years later asked him to manage the giant Merchandise Mart in Chicago. In 1953 he married Kennedy's daughter Eunice. When his brother-in-law John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960, Shriver proved particularly adept in his work with minority groups throughout the country. After the election he first gained national prominence as director of the experimental overseas Peace Corps, one of the most popular ventures of the New Frontier program of the Kennedy administration.

In 1964, after John F. Kennedy's assassination, Shriver accepted appointment as head of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty in the Office of Economic Opportunity. Holding both posts until 1966, Shriver resigned from the Peace Corps to devote himself to the Office of Economic Opportunity. Under Shriver’s leadership, the Office of Economic Opportunity created a collection of projects all aimed at improving education and community development while reducing poverty. These projects, which are still in existence today doing important work helping to prevent and reduce poverty, include Head Start, VISTA, the Job Corps, Foster Grandparents, Upward Bound, community health centers, legal services for the poor, and the often (and unfairly) maligned community action program” (Peace Corps).

Ultimately, during different points in his life, Shriver has played the roles of Navy serviceman, Newsweek journalist, Merchandise general manager, Chicago Board of Education commissioner, Peace Corps director, public servant, vice presidential candidate, Ambassador to France, and a beloved husband and father of five children. His numerous accomplishments culminated in “1994 when Shriver was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor” (Britannica).


Historic Roots

"During his long and prestigious career, Shriver:

1947-1948 Conducted, with his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the National Conference on Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency in Washington

1955-60 Served as president of the Chicago Board of Education

1960 Worked as a political and organizational coordinator in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries for Democratic presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy

1961-1966 Served as the organizer and first Director of the Peace Corps, where he developed volunteer activities in more than 50 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America

1964-1968 Served as the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity under President Lyndon B. Johnson

1964-1968 Created VISTA, Head Start, Community Action, Foster Grandparents, Job Corps, Legal Services, Indian and Migrant Opportunities and Neighborhood Health Services

1968-1970 Served as Ambassador to France

1970 Served as Chairman of Congressional Leadership for the Future, traveling to 29 U.S. states to gain support for 89 Democratic candidates for the House and Senate

1970 Named a Partner in the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson, specializing in international law and foreign affairs

1972 Nominated by the Democratic Party as a candidate for Vice President with Senator George McGovern in the presidential effort against incumbents Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew

1978 Inaugurated the Kennedy Institute of Ethics “Trialogue” to foster discussions between leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim Religions

1981 Appointed to the Rockefeller University Council, an organization devoted exclusively to research and graduate education in the biomedical and related sciences

1984 Elected president of the Special Olympics by the Board of Directors; as president, he directed the operation and international development of sports programs around the world

1986 Retired as Partner of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson

1990 Appointed Chairman of the Board of Special Olympics

1993 Received the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom From Want Award

1994 Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, from President Clinton on August 8; dedicated The Eunice Kennedy and Sargent Shriver Center at the University of Maryland Baltimore County to engage the strengths and resources of higher education in finding creative solutions to the most troublesome social problems of our time

1998 Shriver Hall dedicated in new Peace Corps Building in Washington, D.C., USA

1999 Shriver Job Corps Center dedicated in Devens, Massachusetts, USA

2001 Received the “Distinguished American Award” from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation for his inspiring work with the Peace Corps; Shriver Head Start Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

2003 Appointed Chairman of the Board Emeritus of Special Olympics

Shriver’s awards include: Veteran of the Year, 1956; James J. Hooey Award, Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice Council of New York, 1958; Lay Churchman of the Year, 1963; National Father of the Year, 1964; Notre Dame Patriotism Award, 1965; National Brotherhood Award, 1966; Hannah G. Solomon Award, National Council of Jewish Women, 1972; and the Order of the Smile, 1989. Shriver also has received more than 24 honorary degrees from universities around the world, including Yale University, Brandeis University, Boston College, Yeshiva University, the University of Liberia and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand” (Medal of Freedom).



Robert Sargent Shriver has not only shared, but also shaped, the action and passion of his times. It was Sargent Shriver’s energy, persuasion, and leadership that made the goals of the Peace Corps attainable—that living reminder that the essence of American power is not might of arms, but constancy of ideals and perseverance of effort.

Beckoning others to serve, since 1961, hundreds of thousands of Americans have followed Shriver’s challenge to seek peace through service by volunteering with the Peace Corps. Existing “to serve, to help, to care for our fellow human beings regardless of race, color, education or power, the Peace Corps opposes the idea that war is inevitable and strives for peace through service—not through economic strength or military power” (Medal of Freedom).

Shriver’s effective leadership of the Peace Corps is incredibly important in how his organization has effectively helped develop challenged communities around the globe and helped cultivate a culture of service among Americans. At the completion of their service terms, Peace Corps Volunteers typically continue a legacy of service in their own communities.

Ultimately, Sargent Shriver is considered “a humanitarian, an advocate, a public servant, and a leader whose contributions to his country and to his fellow man will endure throughout the ages” (Peace Corps).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Committed to making the world a better place in which to live, and helping those most in need around the world and in our own country, Sargent Shriver has led a life of public service, compassion, and philanthropy in action. As the chief organizer and first director of the Peace Corps—an organization that would come to the aid of foreign communities needing medical, educational, and technical assistance, while giving millions of Americans the opportunity to share knowledge and culture with those around the world—and leader of President Johnson’s War on Poverty that has successfully ushered in many programs that continue to provide social services to those in need, it can be said that philanthropy has been a constant motivator in Sargent Shriver’s life.

Philanthropy is the idea of improving human welfare. Sargent Shriver is therefore not only a true philanthropist in how he has lived his life, but by acculturating the importance of servitude among Americans through the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver has encouraged a sense of philanthropy in others as well. Ultimately, by mobilizing the federal government to be a philanthropic force in the cause of civil rights, economic opportunity and global understanding while spearheading the Office of Economic Opportunity, and during his stewardship of both the Peace Corps and the Special Olympics, Sargent Shriver has immersed himself in a life of service and philanthropy.


Key Related Ideas

Altruism “is acting for the sake of other people's interests. There are two forms. Ethical altruism: people should act with other people's interests in mind, and learn this through experience. Psychological altruism: people are compelled to act with other people's interests in mind, because altruism is instinctive” (Reasoned).

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (EOA) “was the centerpiece of the "War on Poverty," which in turn was a major thrust of the "Great Society" legislative agenda of the Lyndon Johnson administration (Garson). The EOA provided for job training, adult education, and loans to small businesses to attack the roots of unemployment and poverty. EOA programs included VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America), a personal priority of LBJ; the Job Corps; the Neighborhood Youth Corps; Head Start; Adult Basic Education; Family Planning; Community Health Centers; Congregate Meal Preparation; Economic Development; Foster Grandparents; Legal Services; Neighborhood Centers; Summer Youth Programs; Senior Centers and others. The EOA established over a thousand of Community Action Agencies (CAA's) at the local level to implement Great Society programs, many of which being nonprofit groups” (Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society).

Great Society Measures of Johnson was the term used to describe Lyndon B. Johnson’s reform program to address poverty. “In all, the Great Society was the greatest burst of legislative activity since the New Deal and achieved some reductions in poverty—between 1965 and 1968, for example, black-family income rose from 54 percent to 60 percent of white-family income” (Country Studies).

Service “is the engagements of individuals in activities that primarily focus on the service being provided as well as the benefits the service activities have on the recipients. The individuals receive some benefits by learning more about how their service makes a difference in the lives of the service recipients” (San Francisco State University).


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) “was the Democratic Vice President under John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) and became the 37th president of the United States (1963-1969) after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. The Great Society program became Johnson's agenda for Congress in January 1965: aid to education, attack on disease, Medicare, urban renewal, beautification, conservation, development of depressed regions, a wide-scale fight against poverty, control and prevention of crime and delinquency, removal of obstacles to the right to vote” (Whitehouse). Sargent Shriver oversaw these programs while director of the Office of Economic Opportunity from 1964 to 1968.
  • Joseph P. Kennedy, “the patriarch of the political Kennedy family, was born during Boston's Irish boom of the late 1800s. Famously ambitious, he attended Harvard and by age 25 was already president of a small bank. Later he moved into investment banking, movie theaters, film production and liquor, becoming wealthy in the process. His 1913 marriage to Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of Boston mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, resulted in nine children” (Who 2). Their daughter, Eunice, would later marry Sargent Shriver in 1953. 
  • Eunice Mary Kennedy Shriver, Sargent Shriver’s wife of 52 years, “the daughter of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy, and the sister of President John Kennedy, has long lived a philanthropic life. Advocating for the mentally retarded, Shriver, whose sister Rosemary was retarded, helped to organize the Presidential Commission on Mental Retardation, and in 1962 she established the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, as well as the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Awards in Mental Retardation. Shriver is perhaps best known for creating the Special Olympics, which Sargent Shriver became Chairman in 1990. She also founded Community of Caring, a concept that encourages people to be responsible and caring citizens. In 1984, Shriver was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. She earned a BS in sociology from Stanford University” (Infoplease).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Head Start “are comprehensive child development programs administered by the United States Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families that serve children from birth to age 5, pregnant women, and their families. The programs are child-focused programs and have the overall goal of increasing the school readiness of young children in low-income families” (Administration for Children and Families).
  • Peace Corps is an organization whose three simple goals comprise its mission. These goals are to “help the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women; help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans” (Peace Corps). Sargent Shriver was director of the Peace Corps from 1961 to 1966.
  • Created by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, The Special Olympics “is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, productive and respected members of society through sports training and competition. Special Olympics currently serves more than 1.7 million persons with intellectual disabilities in more than 200 Programs in more than 150 countries. In 2000, Special Olympics made a bold commitment to reach 2 million athletes by the end of 2005, placing a renewed focus on building the movement's infrastructure and establishing tools to facilitate growth” (Special Olympics). Sargent Shriver has been Chairman of the Special Olympics’ Board since 2003.
  • VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is a national service program created by Sargent Shriver in 1964 when he was director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. “VISTA’s goal is to eliminate poverty in the midst of plenty by opening to everyone the opportunity to work and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity” (Friends of VISTA).


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Association for Children and Families. “About Head Start.”
  • Britannica. “Sargent Shriver.”
  • Country Studies. “Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society.”
  • Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation. “About the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation.”
  • The Shriver Center
  • The Peace Corps. “About the Peace Corps.”
  • Special Olympics. “History.”
  • The White House. “Lyndon B. Johnson.”