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A Shriver Learns It's Harder To Be Good Than Great
Originally published on Sat June 16, 2012 2:22 pm
When Mark Shriver's father died last year at the age of 95, it seemed that everyone who knew him — politicians, priests, waitresses, presidents and trash collectors — used the same phrase to tell him what they had thought of his father. He was "a good man."
A Good Man is also the title of Shriver's new memoir about his father, R. Sargent Shriver. The elder Shriver, who once ran for president, ran the War on Poverty, the Peace Corps, Job Corps and the Special Olympics. On top of that, he was U.S. ambassador to France and married into the Kennedy family.
Shriver tells NPR's Scott Simon that great men and women may have power, prestige and money, "but when the lights are turned off and no one's paying attention, they're not good." Sargent Shriver, on the other hand, "was as kind and thoughtful to the waitresses at his favorite restaurant as he was with presidents or cardinals," he says.
Shriver says he wanted to dig in and find out what made his father so respected.
"What was the key to that life that he led? That he was happily married for 56 years to the woman of his dreams, that he raised five kids that all love him, that he had countless friends. He went to Mass on a daily basis, yet he still did all of these great things," he says. "I think it really was his faith that gave him that foundation."
With five children, Sargent Shriver understood the difficulties of fatherhood but still gave unconditional love, his son says.
"There's a story that I tell in the book about my brother Bobby falling down when he was a little kid and crying, and my uncle Bobby Kennedy saying, 'Don't cry. Kennedys don't cry,' and Dad scooped him up and said, 'That's OK, you're a Shriver, you can cry.' "
Much later in his life, Sargent Shriver suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Once, Shriver says, his father was watching his granddaughter play lacrosse. "I was yelling at her, encouraging her to be more competitive. He was sitting next to me in a chair and he said, 'Hey there,' and I looked over at him, and I thought, 'Oh my god, something's happened, he's got a problem, he's battling Alzheimer's.' And he said, 'Did I yell at you like that, too?' "
"It just stunned me that he knew that I was his son and that was maybe his granddaughter out there," Shriver says. "For that moment, he was still fathering me."
In the Kennedy-Shriver family, there may have been more pressure to be great than good.
"I think when you're surrounded by that culture, where you're trying to change the world, or putting a man on the moon, or trying to defeat Communism," he says, "for a kid that can be confusing because you can think, 'Wow, I've got to do something like that as well,' and I definitely had those thoughts."
But, Shriver says, watching his father taught him that it's often harder to be good than to be great. "And that's what my dad did incredibly well, and ... I hope some of the lessons I've learned from him will be helpful not just to me, but to others who are struggling with this dilemma of whether to be great or to be good."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When Mark Shriver's father died last year, at the age of 95, it seemed that everybody who knew him - politicians, priests, waitresses, presidents, and trash collectors - used the same phrase to tell Mark Shriver what they had thought of his father. Mr. Shriver, what was that phrase?
MARK SHRIVER: A good man.
SIMON: Mark Shriver joins us now from Dallas. His father, R. Sargent Shriver, of course once ran for president. He ran the War on Poverty and the Peace Corps and the Job Corps, and the Special Olympics. He was U.S. ambassador to France, and married into the Kennedy family. Mr. Shriver, who is a senior vice president of Save the Children, has written a memoir called "A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver."
Mr. Shriver, thanks so much for being with us.
SHRIVER: Thank you very much for having me on. I'm very honored to be here.
SIMON: What's the difference between being great and being good?
SHRIVER: Well, you know, I think there are a lot of so-called great men and women that have made a lot of money or have a lot of power and prestige, but when the lights are turned off and no one's paying attention, they're not good. And what I found about Dad that was really incredible was that he was as kind and thoughtful to the waitresses at his favorite restaurant as he was with presidents or cardinals.
He was the same with the guy at the U.S. Air counter at National Airport as he was with great executives, business executives. The difference is that you wouldn't want to have a drink or dinner with a lot of great people because they're not nice and they're not good and they're not - they don't treat people the same. And that's what I dug in to try to find out about Dad. What was the key to that life that he led, that he was happily married for 56 years to the woman of his dreams. That he raised five kids that all love him. That he had countless friends. He went to mass on a daily basis and yet he still did all of these great things.
And I think it really was his faith that gave him that foundation.
SIMON: Help us understand how he worked to be a good father with five kids and a busy life, and as you know at this stage in your life, it's work to be a good father.
SHRIVER: It really is and, you know, I think the struggles that we went through as a family and some of the issues that I dealt with on a personal basis are really issues that everyone deals with. But I think the great thing about Dad was he realized that we were going through those struggles but he just gave unconditional love. You know, there's a story that I tell in the book about my brother Bobby falling down when he was a little kid and crying and my uncle Bobby Kennedy saying don't cry, Kennedys don't cry. And Dad scooped him up and said that's OK, you're a Shriver, you can cry.
SHRIVER: We just knew that he was going to be there and be supportive and going to love us. And that's a really incredible foundation for a kid of any age, whether you're 14 or 18 or 48 and your father has died, you can still learn from him and you can still feel that love. And that's a powerful thing.
SIMON: I want to get you to tell a story about maybe how your father taught you how to be a good father. The descent from Alzheimer's had already begun and I guess he went to a lacrosse game in which one of your daughters is playing.
SHRIVER: You know, I struggle with competing against my cousins and my siblings and, you know, everybody. I guess it's just part of the gene pool makeup. And I was encouraging my daughter who at that point was 10 or 11, you know, strongly from the sidelines. The week before I had noticed that during a break in play she was over chatting with the goalie.
And I said to her after the game, Molly, what were you doing? She goes, oh, I was chatting with the goalie. She's so nice and I'm going to go to a dance with her next weekend. And I said, honey, you've got to throw the ball at her head or at her leg. You know, you've got to score on her.
So the next week I brought Dad to the game and once again I was yelling at her, encouraging her to be more competitive, and he was sitting next to me in a chair and he said hey, there. And I looked over at him and I thought, oh, my god, something's happened. He's got a problem and he's battling Alzheimer's.
And he said, did I yell at you like that too? I thought about it. I'm like, no. You know, when I did well in high school sports he treated me the same as when I didn't play. What was really important was supporting your kid and loving your kid whether she was scoring a goal or he was sitting on the bench.
And it just stunned me that he knew that I was his son and that that was maybe his granddaughter out there. He disappeared, you know, on the drive home into a fog of Alzheimer's but for that moment he, you know, was still fathering me.
SIMON: I'm just guessing in the - if I might refer to it as the Kennedy-Shriver family - there is maybe more pressure to be great than good.
SHRIVER: I think so. I think, you know, when you are around campaigns - I was born in '64 and family, the extended family had been involved in presidential campaigns from essentially 1956 through 1980 and then there was obviously, you know, a lot of talk about Teddy running in '84.
And I think when you're surrounded by that culture where you're trying to change the world or putting a man on the moon or trying to defeat communism, you know, for a kid that can be confusing because you can think, wow, I've got to do something like that as well.
And I definitely had those thoughts. But I think as I look more and more at my father and as he died, I realized that to be good is often harder to do than it is to be great. And that's what my dad did incredibly well and that's what I hope some of the lessons I've learned from him will be helpful not just to me but to others who are struggling with this dilemma of whether to be great or to be good.
And if you want to be good how do you balance family and faith and friends and doing something for your community?
SIMON: Mark Shriver, senior vice president of Save the Children and he's written a memoir called "A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver." Thanks so much for being with us.
Thank you very much for having me. I'm really honored.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.