Mark Shriver explores what made 'Sarge' a good man

BRIAN WITTE Associated Press Published:

BETHESDA, Md. (AP) -- After Mark K. Shriver's father died last year, he kept thinking of the words people used so consistently to describe the affable public servant known as "Sarge."

A good man.

The experience prompted Shriver to write "A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver" to better understand how his father managed to have so many heartfelt admirers -- and how the now-48-year-old father of three could learn by his example.

"It's a son's quest to figure out what made his father joyful, what made him successful, but success in the sense of being good as compared to being great," Shriver told The Associated Press in an interview at his Bethesda, Md., home, where photos of his father appear on a large bookcase in the living room. "There are a lot of great men and women that you don't want to go out to dinner with, you know, that when the cameras are turned off, they're not good to people."

Sargent Shriver died in January 2011 at age 95. He was married for more than 50 years to Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, John F. Kennedy's sister, and served in the administrations of Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The book, published this month, is a deeply personal tribute. It explores how a father energetically and happily handled responsibilities as the first Peace Corps director, ambassador to France, leader in the war on poverty and devout helper to his wife -- all while consistently coming up big as a father.

While there is plenty of background on his father's life in politics and failed elections, the book focuses on how the late Shriver unwaveringly supported his children, even during difficult moments. When Mark Shriver's brother Bobby was arrested for smoking marijuana in 1970, his father didn't lose his cool, despite enormous publicity. When Mark Shriver changed his mind about joining the Peace Corps, followed by a decision not to participate in its domestic version, VISTA, his dad took it in stride again.

"He never cared about how he was perceived," Shriver said. "He cared about the kid in front of him, his son or daughter."

Not even the ravages of Alzheimer's could fully cloud his father's positive outlook. Mark Shriver writes of painful yet warm recollections from the last years of his dad's life, which was strongly buoyed by his faith in Catholicism. Shriver recalls asking his father during a car ride about how the illness affected him.

"'Dad,' I said, 'you are losing your mind. You know that. How does that make you feel? How are you doing with that?'"

His father replied: "I'm doing the best I can with what God has given me."

Shriver writes that even as his father's health declined, he never let his worries allow him to become angry or anxious.

"It was around this time that I finally started to put to rest all the nonsense that had always driven me," Shriver writes. "Keeping up with the Kennedys, working like my life depended on it, trying to understand the fame, power, and tragedy of this family I had been born into: I was beginning to realize how little any of it mattered."

Mark Shriver served two terms in Maryland's House of Delegates before losing a close Democratic congressional primary to Rep. Chris Van Hollen in 2002. He now has no plans to run for office again, and instead plans to continue working as senior vice president for U.S. programs at the nonprofit relief and advocacy group Save the Children. He writes that he is following the example of his father, who he says was successful despite never winning elected office.

"I love my job, and I really find that politics takes you away from your kids," Shriver said on a Saturday afternoon, right around the time his youngest daughter Emma carried a pet rabbit named Lulu outside through the living room, where letters written by Shriver's uncle, President Kennedy, are framed on the wall. "I've got a 7-year-old, I've got a 12 and a 14, you know? And I love my wife, and I want to be around them."