The Passing of an Icon
One early-Spring day several years ago, I headed to Baltimore to be a part of the excitement that comes with Opening Day. Being the hero-worshipping dork that I am, I got there early enough to hang around hoping for an autograph. My main target? The Iron Man of Baseball, Cal Ripken. I had a program with Cal featured on the cover and staked out a position in the front row (my seats are in the upper deck, where the regular folks sit). It was an uncharacteristically nice day for that time of year. I stood there in awe of my surroundings and noticed a very refined gentleman sitting there in the front row. My class consciousness kicked in, figuring this was one of the bourgeoisie, able to head over from Legg Mason in the middle of the day and take his seat that is, no doubt, often vacant, since folks from his class can blow off a high-priced ticket and often do.
He sat there, I stood nearby, occasionally looking over at him. Before long he was joined by a young man with an unmistakable look. A Kennedy. A young one, but a Kennedy nonetheless. Ding!
Being the kind of guy who is not afraid to take chances, especially when it comes time to add to my “Famous Person List,” I went over and asked, “You’re Sargent Shriver, aren’t you?” This was, indeed, Sargent Shriver, a hero to anyone with a sense of history and a yearning to rid the world of poverty.
Instead of Cal Ripken’s autograph, I got Sargent Shriver’s. My lucky day!
Sargent Shriver was the first director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the newly-created center of the storm. President John F. Kennedy, whose eloquent appeals to idealistic American greatness inspired so many, appointed the husband of his sister, Eunice, to run the operation that launched 1,000 Community Action Programs, the national campaign to bring all youngsters to educational parity (Head Start), and a number of other initiatives, including Model Cities and Foster Grandparents.
These were stormy times. Color was becoming a political flashpoint, as black Americans were getting more confrontational in their demand to actually be treated like real people, heroes like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Roy Wilkins, Rosa Parks and so many others stood up and refused to stand down. Naysayers fought back more aggressively. The heat was on and the cities were smoldering.
Into this tinderbox walked Sargent Shriver, a kind, stately, decent American who believed we could do better and made every effort to lead the way.
Sargent Shriver never left the fray, which included a run for president in 1976.
Time would dim the flame, and Alzheimer’s eventually robbed us of his mind, and now his body.
Hopefully, at least some will be inspired anew by learning about him in death. God knows we need the inspiration.
We also need to reignite the fire. The mean streak that pervades our society, pitting winners against losers in ways I have never seen, is like a fire hose putting what could be the last flood of water on what little is left of the fire.
We need a new army of inspired believers to stand up. Come on, baby, light that fire.
Community Action has fought the War on Poverty for 45 years now. And we owe it to Sargent Shriver. We will never surrender.