Shriver's Last Great Peace Corps Speech
On the afternoon of Saturday, June 20, 1981, Sarge Shriver spoke at the second National Conference of former Peace Corps Volunteers and Staff at Howard University in Washington, D.C. It was the 20th anniversary of the Peace Corps and it was a wonderful weekend, mostly because of Sarge. He bought the house down late in the afternoon in one terrific speech delivered at the close of the long weekend. When Shriver rose to speak so did the packed house of RPCVs who rose to cheer him. These were mostly “his Volunteers,” and they loved him.
They were also cheering themselves, cheering the memory of who they were and what they once had done in the development world. Some say the applause went on for twenty minutes. No, it was closer to ten minutes, but it was warm and rich with memory. It brought tears to many eyes as Shriver tried to speak. He called his wife to join him and the applause continued. Finally he brought us to silence and to our seats. He spoke for about 20 minutes, thanking the new Peace Corps Director, Loret Ruppe, a Republican, and gave her credit for putting the Peace Corps out of ACTION and making it independent agency once again, though I am not sure she deserved as much credit as others, like Dick Celeste and Bill Josephson.
Then he said, speaking off the cuff, “Remember when Loret Ruppe introduced Beulah Bartlett and Blythe Monroe, two of our first PCVs to Ethiopia? Those two women were 68 and 66 when they volunteered for the Peace Corps in 1962, and yesterday they both received tumultuous applause for their work and their spirit. They inspired us all — just by their presence on the platform.
“After they left the stage, standing right in front of Loret Ruppe and me, Beulah looked up at me and said -‘You saved my life…’
“Loret Ruppe heard her, and said to me: —
‘”What a lovely thing for her to say –‘You saved my life'”!
“Loret was right! It was beautiful…but, of course, it wasn’t true!
“I never saved Beulah’s life. Beulah saved her own life by giving it away. She offered it to service. Her gift of herself to the poor and uneducated in Ethiopia gave her a new lease on a new life…a life of service and peace.”
I can’t reprint Sarge’s whole speech but here is Shriver’s concluding paragraphs.
“The task is immense! Warren Wiggins and Bill Josephson twenty years ago called it — “the towering task.” Well, my friends, in 1981, “the towering task” still towers before us; but, thank God, we still have the Corps of Peace–that body of human beings who know and have known, that America’s destiny is not to be policeman of the world, monarch of the world, Caesar, Imperator, Rex, or Deus. But servant–servant of people, servant of peace, saviors of humanity.
“It’s a big task; but it’s fun; it’s joy; it’s the true pursuit of happiness! May you all grow young in the achivement of it.
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Thanks, John, That was one of Shriver’s greatest speeches ever. I loved the part of the speech that made the distinction between “curing” and “caring,” the latter, of course referring to Peace Corps. I recall speaking to Bill Josephson afterwards and asking who wrote the speech–it was so good! He assured me that it was written by Shriver himself. And it indeed reflects the values of his long and productive life.
I was not present at that meeting and I appreciated hearing about it. However, though it doesn’t really matter, the speech I remember being the last was at the 25th anniversary in DC when returned volunteers were given The Shriver Award. I was filming events, and captured part of that wonderful speech that urged all of us to keep on serving.
Sarge may not have “saved our lives” but he certainly inspired us to keep on serving. His persistence in promoting service, and in encouraging us to make a difference did certainly change our lives.
In Los Angeles we held our own celebration for the 20th in 1981…but our thoughts were with Sarge and the door he opened to all of his Volunteers.
…You are still with us Sarge!
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