Sargent Shriver walked with upright elegance that day in the old State Capitol building in downtown Raleigh. He was there to announce that the 1999 Special Olympics World Summer Games, founded in 1962 as a summer camp in his backyard in Maryland, would be coming to the Triangle. Even then-Gov. Jim Hunt was pretty impressed that he was standing with Shriver and his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
Shriver, who died Tuesday at 95, was a man of privilege who married into the Kennedy clan and followed his brother-in-law's invitation into public service, becoming the founding director of the Peace Corps. After Lyndon Johnson succeeded John F. Kennedy upon the tragedy in Dallas, he put Shriver in charge of the War on Poverty. Shriver did both jobs well, became involved in elective politics himself (running in 1972 as George McGovern's vice presidential nominee) and focused on the Special Olympics until a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease in 2003.
His life was a testament to the power of public service when put in the hands of a person with boundless energy and personal magnetism. Shriver wasn't just an optimist. He was an effervescent, take-charge, no-holds-barred, no-frowns-allowed optimist. To simply be around him, or to be involved in one of his humanitarian causes, was an inspirational experience, by the testimony of thousands of people who had that good fortune.
When he joined the Kennedy administration, Shriver was criticized by some professional observers as merely a member of the family firm, a fellow who prospered, in fame at least, because of his in-laws. In time, Shriver's good works silenced most of those early critics, and upon his death he was praised by multiple presidents and by the parents of those Special Olympians he knew so well.