At Sarge's Wake

Don Beil (Somalia 1964–66) shares thoughts on the wake held for Sargent Shriver in Washington, DC this past Friday.

Robert Sargent Shriver Wake
Open to the public
Friday, January 21
4:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Holy Trinity Catholic Church
Washington, D.C.

THE CHURCH DOORS DID NOT OPEN UNTIL 4:00 p.m., so having arrived 20 long minutes early I stood outside with a small group of mourners in the bitter cold. A handful of photographers and videographers waited across the street. For unknown reasons, other than to have something to keep them moving in the cold — even if it was only a finger — they took pictures of the short line. Perhaps it was my uneasiness at being this close to something religious that signaled something of interest to them.

Accompanied by police sirens, a hearse arrived followed by a large white limousine-labeled bus. Shrivers, apparently — for most are unknown to me, piled out of the bus, perhaps 25 or 30 in all. Almost all were children — thin, handsome, long hair. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was among them. Although I did not recognize her at that point, probably Maria was there too; later, once inside I realized who she was.

People near me in line — who all appeared to be in their 70s — were talking about when they served with, and then worked for, the Peace Corps. Although I too had been a Volunteer as well as worked for the Peace Corps in the 1960s I had learned long ago never to brag about how long ago it was. My wife had been an Ethiopia I from 1962 to 1964, two years before me, and had been at PC headquarters before me (she had in fact hired me), so it has always been useless for me to even think of bragging about how long ago I had served; there was always someone nearby who had been-there-done-that before I had.

Talk in the line then turned to important social movements — the Peace Corps and AA (“I’ve been 25 years without a drink” I heard) being the two topics discussed.

Several trucks went by with telescoping satellite antennae. The church is in Georgetown, where even the plentiful Smart cars of DC have difficulty finding a space to park.

The church doors opened, and those lovely Shriver children — some of the 19 grandchildren of the Shrivers I learned later — were so gracious. “Thank you for coming. Thank you for coming.”

As a watcher, I sat in the back while others who knew what to do at a wake waited in line down the middle aisle. The former Governor and his wife (I had by then realized who she was) were simply wonderful, moving slowly down the middle aisle in genuine conversation with one after another of the mourners. Simply very gracious.

I studied the small memorial card. That handsome Shriver smile on the front side framed in white, on the other, the following.

November 9, 1915 – January 18, 2011

And now these three remain: faith, hope
and love. But the greatest of
these is love.
St. Paul


I hope you remember to believe in things
’til you die. I hope you remember to be
guided by beliefs powerful enough to
change the world. I hope you remember
the example of the Peace Corps
Volunteer, the Head Start parent, the
Special Olympics athlete. They, each in
their own way, are waging peace.
Maybe you will even remember me and
my family . . . remember the importance of
family — of giving and receiving — of love.

You have such a chance!
Oh, how I wish I were you!!!

Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr
Yale University Class Day
May 1994

People in church began to recognize each other. Hugs. Pats on the back. The up and down rubbing of one’s hand on the upper arm of another — a warm gesture of understanding and connection.

It was a crowd with canes, many walking with the steps of age — a time to realize how long ago it was that Mr. Shriver had changed our society — and our lives, and now a time when young people have no idea of who the Kennedys are (were?) — the composition of the audience was far from a surprise. Many, to turn their heads, had to turn their whole bodies, as the necks of age no longer swivel without pain. The numbers for whom Mr. Shriver was a hero have dwindled.

The line in the middle aisle was moving very slowly, and although the crowd was never large it was very steady. It was a well-dressed crowd  — unusual really for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers — so the crowd was not all RPCVs. Heavy coats were never removed throughout the evening as the church never warmed.

I passed on joining the reception line. What would I say? Mr. Shriver’s was for me a life in which he lived his words: “serve, serve, serve.” I had nothing more to say.

I signed the guest book for both my wife and myself, as she had asked in advance. So one name was a no-show.

It was a lively talkative crowd — yes, a celebration — not a hushed group.

Around the church, poster-size photos stood on easels. Fishing. Weddings. Families. Smiles.

As I watched the center aisle, it seemed that the hands moving warmly on upper-arms lingered longer on Mr. Schwarzenegger’s upper-arm than on others.

I asked when the program would begin. 6:30 p.m., meaning I would have been there for two and a half hours in the cold before the program began. I ducked out to The Tombs (no irony meant) a block away for a large warm — not hot — bowl of chili.

When I got back, the crowd was much larger. Steny Hoyer. John Kerry. Harris Wofford. David Axelrod. Caroline Kennedy, another back row sitter, sat at the other end of my row. Senator Kerry stood speaking informally with a woman in the aisle next to me; she prepared to leave him a note and was about to write in the white space when the Senator admonished her not to write on a memorial card.

People were asked to sit so that the program could begin.

The church was full, probably 500 seated, another 100 standing at the back, and more in the choir loft above.

“Please stand.” Amazing Grace. Speakers.

Steny Hoyer: We are all Sarge’s children. . . . He had a passion for people.

C. Payne Lucas: Sarge reminds me of Nelson Mandela. . . . There was not enough of him to go around.

Maureen Orth: Former PCVs owe him for what was, for so many of us, the best period of our lives.

“My name is Chris Dodd, Dominican Republic VI.” (Politicians — the constant me-generation.)

Colman McCarthy: As speech writers we give our speakers their quotes, those pearls that they repeat so smoothly. With Sarge, it was the reverse — he always told me what quotes to use in upcoming speeches I prepared for him.

George McGovern: Sarge consoled my wife and me — “we lost 49 states but never lost our souls.”

Bill Moyers: Sarge was a magnet for trust, and trusted us with a calling. LBJ told me “the way to sell the PC was to sell Sarge.”

Maria and her four brothers: Thank you. My father believed in faith, hope, and love; they have the greatest power.

One Comment

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  • From John Woods

    I just watched a repeat of the wake on C-Span, a wonderful service. I
    have been reflecting on Sargent Shriver all this week. I am amazed at
    the outpouring of affection shown him in every publication I have
    read. The comments sections after those articles are remarkable both
    in the amount of comments and the sentiments expressed. He really did
    touch more lives than we can possibly imagine. I was thinking that he
    didn’t know me, but I knew him because he awoke a part of me that I
    would not have known were it not for him. I was particularly moved by
    Timothy Shriver’s reading of how his father defined himself. I think
    he was completely right about himself. He knew who he was and what
    was important, and his life is a lesson that we can all learn from.
    In a world where there is too much violence, too much hate, too much
    cynicism, too much selfishness, too much unhappiness, too much
    poverty, too much self-righteousness, he stands as a role model for
    how to turn all that around and at the same time live a happy,
    fulfilled life, with more friends and admirers that we can possibly
    imagine. The tributes he has received are proof enough about what is
    the best way to live. I just wonder if we will ever wake up to that.
    We really are all in this together, and when we look out for that of
    which we are a part, we look out for ourselves. That is what Sargent
    Shriver in his own way knew and how he lived. His passing only
    reminds us of this once again.

    I did some searching on the Internet and found the Sargent Shriver
    Web site, and they have his speech delivered at the 25th anniversary
    of the Peace Corps in 1986. Reading that speech again, with its theme
    of service, especially its conclusion, takes me back to that
    celebration and how inspired I was by his admonition to “serve,
    serve, serve.” Amazing.

    I just wanted to share these thoughts as you called our attention to
    the fact that the wake would be televised. Thanks.


    John Woods

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