The Death of Kennedy and Haile Selassie Remembered

Continuing for a moment on the theme of JFK and Peace Corps Volunteers, I happen to get hold of an early copy of Mark K. Shriver’s book on his father entitled, A Good Man, that Henry Holt is publishing in June.  My wife is a magazine executive and her staff is trained to give her copies of any book about the Peace Corps or Ethiopia that arrives at the office!

Mark’s book has the subtitle of Rediscovering my Father.  Sarge, as we know, died in January 2011 at the age of 95.  And in the last years of his long life he suffered from Alzheimer.

A story Mark tells in his book  is about the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s death, and the gathering of world dignitaries in Washington, D.C. for the state funeral.

Shriver more or less ran the wake and funeral and on the day of the Mass and burial the White House was jammed with heads of state. Angie Duke, then the chief of protocol at the State Department, asked Sarge to greet dignities at the front door of the White House.

Funeral party leaving the White House - from left: President Charles de Gualle of France; Queen Frederika of Greece; King Baudouin of Belgium; Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia; President Diosdado Macapagal of the Philippines.

Funeral party leaving the White House - from left: President Charles de Gualle of France; Queen Frederika of Greece; King Baudouin of Belgium; Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia; President Diosdado Macapagal of the Philippines.

This story was told to Mark by Joe English, another early Peace Corps figure. English at the time was the Peace Corps Chief of Psychiatry, but more importantly, he was very close to Shriver. He was with Shriver in the White House that morning and at the last moment Shriver asked Joe to grab a box of Mass card that would be given out later at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

English did that and gave a few to Sarge just as the first head of state walked into the White House. It was Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia.

Shriver had met the Emperor at his palace in Ethiopia the year before when Sarge had gone to Africa to visit Volunteers. Selassie, too, had recently been to the U.S. and met Kennedy.

English remembers Selassie was crying when Sarge handed him the Mass card, and Sarge said to Haile, “Your Majesty, I want this card to be a memorial of President Kennedy, who loved your country very much.”

The Emperor took the card and studied it a moment, and then answered Sarge in French, “President Kennedy needs no memorial to our country because he has three hundred of his children working there today.”

His reference, of course, was all of us, but the number was wrong. The Ethiopia Twos, about 140, had arrived that September, teachers and also nurses, bringing the total number of PCVs in the Empire to well over 400.

Nevertheless, Haile was right about Kennedy’s Kids. They were his legacy in the country. And they still are.

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  • John, Your preview of Mark Shriver’s upcoming biography prompted me to take down Scott Stossel’s biography of Shriver. Your quote from Mark’s book regarding Haile Selassie’s heartfelt comment on the day of Kennedy’s funeral actually “set off a torrent of praise for the Peace Corps, as each leader of a country hosting Peace Corps volunteers strove to outdo the last in his effusiveness for the program,” according to Stossel’s account.

    Maybe having served as a PCV in Ethiopia on the day of Kennedy’s burial led you to share the passage about Haile Selassie’s involvement in D.C. Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful preview plus the photo you attached.

    BTW, my copy of Stossel’s “Sarge; the Life and Times of Sargent Shriver” was autographed by Sarge during a book-signing at the community center of D.C.’s Blessed Sacrament Church* where he was accompanied by Mark. Alzheimers had reportedly begun to affect Sarge, but one would never have guessed it from Sarge’s warm back-and-forth with those presenting copies for his signature. I can’t wait to read Mark’s biography upon its June publication.

    *Chris Matthews recently held a book-signing there of his bio of Jack Kennedy.

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