Man Who Made the Peace Corps

Phil Hardberger recalls the impact the late Sargent Shriver had on the organization – and on him.

Special To The Express-News

Sunday, February 27, 2011

 Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger holds a photograph of himself and Sargent Shriver.Sargent Shriver died a few weeks ago – just short of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps. There were many tributes to him. Various columnists and pundits gave accounts of his triumphs with the Peace Corps, the Office of Economic Opportunity and as the U.S. ambassador to France. His failure as a candidate for national office was dissected. Careful analyses were made of his connections with the Kennedy family (he was married to Eunice, the sister of President John F. Kennedy) and whether this was an advantage or disadvantage.

Phil Hardberger writes:

My own thoughts were more personal, more filled with memories, more illustrated with vivid images undiminished by the unrelenting erosion of age. In my sadness at his passing, I realized with a sharp pain of self-awareness a part of my life was also passing.

I was there for most of those Peace Corps and Office of Economic Opportunity years: five years to be exact, the last three on a daily basis with Sarge. Those five years changed my life, put it on a higher plane. I learned qualities of leadership that have stood me in good stead the rest of my life. I saw a broader world, was sensitized to the needs of others and made to think of what kind of legacy I’d like to leave. Sarge was responsible in many ways for the rest of my life, especially that day when he asked me to speak to an assembly of our employees. My wife-to-be Linda was in the first row. She had on a maroon suit and looked terrific (she still does). It turned out we both had worked at the Peace Corps and the Office of Economic Opportunity, but had never met.

Sarge also gave me a series of jobs I probably wasn’t fully up to in either education or experience – but he gave me the chance and I took the jobs with the innocence of a person who doesn’t know enough to realize his inadequacies. The Peace Corps was the framework upon which much of my career was based.

The beginning

The Peace Corps was established March 1, 1961, when President Kennedy signed it into law. It was his idea, but the true father of the Peace Corps is Shriver, who became the director from Day 1. The pen the president signed the Executive Order with was handed directly to Sarge. He was told to go to work “today.” He did.

Offices were set up across Lafayette Park, facing the White House, a block away. Training for the first group of volunteers began in June. By August, those first volunteers were in Ghana teaching. By June 30, 1962, the Peace Corps had 2,816 volunteers in 27 countries.

I tried to get a job with the Peace Corps shortly after it was formed. I was a little early to the party. My interview was conducted on the edge of a desk, in a crowded room, filled with people rushing around as if they had just been told their house was on fire. After filling out the necessary forms, I was sent away with the ominous words that have terminated many an interview: “We’ll be in touch if something opens up.”

A year went by and then, a miracle. I received a call from the Peace Corps and was asked if I would be interested in a job as a “writer.” When I asked, “Write what?” the answer was, “Whatever needs to be written.” I took the job with only a dim realization I was being hired as staff, not as a volunteer. During the next two years, I wrote whatever “needs to be written.” I never met Shriver in those two years, though I was sometimes in the audience when he spoke to us.

By 1966, when he left to take over the Office of Economic Opportunity, Shriver had increased the number of volunteers to 15,000. They were serving in 55 countries. This was the high water mark for the Peace Corps. It never again would be that large and robust; its ranks now stand at 8,000. The volunteers are the embodiment of President Kennedy’s challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

While this meteoric rise was occurring, I was occasionally given a speechwriting chore if the regular speechwriters were not available. I wasn’t as good as the first-tier writers, but I did, finally, get to know Shriver as he took an interest in me. He gave me all sorts of interesting assignments: photographing and reporting on our work in India, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iran and Afghanistan; evaluating our program in the Dominican Republic; accompanying him to the Capitol to lobby for funds; an occasional trip out of town to meet people; being a substitute speaker for groups that really wanted Shriver, and ultimately becoming the executive secretary of the Peace Corps.

What this lofty title really meant was that most of the paperwork going to Shriver went through me, so I came to know a lot of what was going on in the worldwide organization.

It also put me on a daily working basis with “Sarge,” as he preferred to be called. The Peace Corps was not always the most organized place. Terrible phone connections complicated inter-country communication. But what the Peace Corps lacked in organization, it more than made up for in vitality, energy and dedication. I’d grown up on a West Texas farm where hard work was a common staple. But I’d never been around people who worked this hard. Twelve to 16-hour days were the norm for just about everybody.

Foe of bureaucracy

Shriver hated all bureaucracy. He could and did shred an organizational chart within a few hours of its birth. He would call anyone, at any level, for their opinion – and actually listen, which is not to say he would always agree. He had no hesitation to subject you to a vigorous cross-examination. But you felt OK about it because “Sargent Shriver had asked your opinion.” What more could a young person want? Furthermore, he would sometimes take your advice.

I had never met anyone even close to his personality. Where I grew up, in O’Donnell, Texas, the son of a dry-land cotton farmer, we had to struggle to get by. I remember once applying to college (West Point). They wanted references from “doctors, lawyers and professional businessmen.” After scratching our heads, my family determined we didn’t know any members of those three classes, with the sole exception of the banker who kept us going from year to year with never-ending loans. Our family history was brief and mostly unknown. We were farmers with a few Baptist preacher forebears, who were often farmers as well.

The Shrivers were American nobility. They’d been in this land since 1721. One of Sarge’s relatives had signed Maryland’s Constitution in 1776, and the Shrivers were one of that state’s best-known families. And they were rich. Sarge wore tailored suits, the price of which I could only dream. I’ve lived a good deal since those heady days, but I’ve never known a better-dressed person. He actually “worked out” every day. I’d never known anyone to “work out” unless you count the countless things farmers have to lift every day as a part of their work life.

Growing up with the poor’s deep-seated suspicion of the rich, the well-connected and the well-dressed, I was prepared to not like Sarge personally – even though I admired his work. It took about a week for him to change those country-boy attitudes. I fell totally under his spell. A half-century later, I still am.

His was a sunny disposition; everyone I knew either liked or loved him. I started as the former and ended as the latter. Not one time in the many years I knew him did he ever do anything that angered or disappointed me.

He knew an enormous amount of people. Sitting near his office was like watching a Who’s Who of America coming by: senators, Cabinet ministers, NFL players, movie stars, union leaders, industrialists, black militants, Catholic cardinals and bishops, Protestant evangelists.

Occasionally he brought in people who were off the wall. Some turned out to be brilliant and joined our ranks. Others were nut cases who had to be weeded out, among much grumbling of our staff as to “Where does he get these people?”

Memorable dinner

One afternoon Sarge asked me if I would join him in New York City for the evening. He was making a speech there, and mentioned something about having dinner afterward with friends. Of course, I jumped at the chance. There was a fair amount of competition within the staff just to carry his bags and keep him on time. This could be a challenge because he enjoyed talking with everyone from board chairmen to the elevator operators. He made his speech, had a few business conferences and by 10 p.m. we had gone to a famous restaurant, Sardis. Our dining companions were Harry Belafonte and Dinah Shore – just the four of us. I’m sorry to say that one of the four didn’t add much to the conversation. By midnight, we were driving back toward Washington. Sarge was in the back seat with a reading light, going through papers as I slept.

Our driver, “Rags,” was from Fort Worth, and served Sarge throughout his career. Rags was a great driver, but when he followed Sarge to France, where Sarge was the U.S. ambassador, he met his match with Parisian traffic. By the time the tour of duty ended, there had been three wrecks (fortunately, no injuries). Twenty-five years after these events, I visited the Shriver home in Maryland. To my amazement, Rags answered the door. He was still Sarge’s driver. That was the way Sarge affected us. No one wanted to leave him. His light was large enough to warm us through the years.

Sarge and I made another memorable trip. We went to visit the Rev. Billy Graham at his mountaintop home in North Carolina. The last portion of this trip was by helicopter (my first ride). We were met by Graham at the door of his rambling, comfortable, unpretentious one-story home. The views in all directions were spectacular, looking across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

We were served lunch and talked for most of the afternoon. Graham told Sarge of a previous visit by Joe Kennedy Sr. to the house and his ability to “get to the point.” “He asked me a simple, but profound question,” Graham said. “What was it?” Shriver asked. Graham answered, “He asked me, what is the meaning of life?” This set off a long conversation between Sarge and Graham that I wish I had recorded. Suffice it to say, it included love of God and service to man. “Like you, Sarge,” Graham said, patting him on the arm.

After this visit, Graham was of considerable help in interpreting the mission of the Peace Corps and later, that of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Sarge was almost always happy and cheerful. I only remember one time that I saw him totally angered. Someone at the CIA got the idea that having thousands of volunteers overseas could be a “source of information” for the United States. They approached a few Peace Corps volunteers, and encouraged them to gather information about their host country and give it to the CIA. Sarge and the Peace Corps knew nothing about this – at least for a while. When it was discovered, there was hell to pay. The volunteers were jerked out of their host country and sent home.

I walked in on a phone conversation Sarge was having with a member of the CIA administration. Shriver told him these activities could spell the end of the Peace Corps, because we were there to help the host countries in an altruistic, nonpolitical way; not as spies. The tone was loud, clearly articulated and involved the use of some language I had not heard from Sarge heretofore. Sarge was a decorated submarine officer in World War II, and apparently he had retained some colorful words from his service years. The end of the conversation must have chilled the recipient to the bone. He was told that if this stunt was ever attempted again, the next call would be from the president of the United States and his government career might be considerably shortened. There were no further CIA attempts to infiltrate the Peace Corps.

Set the tone

Over the past 50 years, more than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served our country, and the host countries.

There have been 18 Peace Corps directors. But Sargent Shriver dominates the field. He set the tone, established the concept, put people and programs where plans were. He traveled to many of our projects. He slept where the volunteers slept. He ate the food they ate. He became intimately acquainted with dysentery. He traveled on every conceivable form of transport, including donkeys, elephants and camels.

The volunteers have spread the best of the spirit of America. They’ve cleaned the water, built and taught in the schools, put up the bridges, fought AIDS, taught computer technology and basic business skills, been the doctors and nurses, planted the land, established the irrigation schemes, and a thousand other tasks. They come into a strange land as strangers, and leave as beloved members of the community.

The experiences abroad shaped the volunteers. They came home and became leaders in every form of American life, from the U.S. Senate to farming, to legal and medical professionals to the business community. They studied at the school of hard knocks. They know first-hand what life is like away from our shores. Their insights are invaluable to our American understanding of others. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.

In one of the last conversations I had with Sarge, he said, “If only we could have put a million volunteers in the field in place of a million soldiers, what a different world we would have.” I told him I was afraid this was impossible. He replied, “Everything is possible. We just need to think bigger.”

Phil Hardberger was mayor of San Antonio from 2005 to ’09 and currently is a shareholder with the law firm of Cox Smith.

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  • Phil, this is such a beautiful testiment to those times and that great leader so many of us had the wonderful opportunity to serve with and learn from. Thank you for this moving piece. Tom

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