The words “For God, For Country, and For Yale” hang on walls across our campus. They hearken back, serving as little more than a quaint remnant of Old Yale, that stodgy, monochrome land of high-necked sweaters and wide-bottomed trousers: of men, Mory’s, and military names chiseled on marble walls.
With the passing of Sargent Shriver ’38 LAW ’41, we are afforded an opportunity to do more than hearken back, reminisce or mourn. Instead, we are reminded of the immediate significance of those white-lettered words, here and now. We are called to measure ourselves against a man who stood and fought for all three. He was a leader of our stock: a chairman of this newspaper, a Yalie, an American. He was the very best brand of all three.
The life and work of Sargent Shriver embody a civic sense, public service and warm humanism that cannot be understated. While he was often overshadowed by the Harvard family into which he married, the Yale man was more at home in the trenches of policy than the schooners of Camelot. He was a man of means who saw suffering and was not content to let it fester.
The 20th century is strewn with the names of Yalies who fought — statesmen against communism, politicians against each another, presidents against terrorism. Shriver represents a different type of leader: one who led a War on Poverty and fought against violence itself. It is no surprise that Shriver’s most famous achievement is his founding of the university-driven Peace Corps. His was a triumph of imagination, a fusion of youthful, college-campus optimism with pragmatic policy. While Shriver never lost the daring idealism of his Yale years — the breathless zeal his opponents loved to deride — he was no starry-eyed idealist. He wielded a moral authority far more substantive than lofty moralizing. His hope and change were grounded in steely convictions, commanding intellect and uncompromising faith: in his God and his America. His optimism was balanced with pragmatism.
We should take great pride in the fact that the first truly international humanitarian was a Yalie. But Shriver’s life and service are more than yet another pennant to hang on our walls. They are a challenge to all of us, from the Dwight Hall volunteers to the pre-med students to the Goldman interns. The opportunities and gifts we have been afforded demand as much from us as they did from him.
Yale may not value civic education as highly as it did in the days that Shriver was penning editorials for this page. Forms of public service are not as singular. But the demons that Shriver fought are larger and fiercer today: poverty, war, apathy and social disconnect. While our world and university are different from his, the values for which he stood are more vital than ever. They must endure in us. As many facts as we learn and as long our resumes get, there remain greater causes to serve than our own advancement. As Shriver put it, “He who knows all things and believes nothing is damned.”
Yale has often been associated with the formulation of a so-called “New American Century”: a world run by iron American fists, preemptive strikes, and grand, cynical strategies. Yale would do better to find favor in the kind of American century embodied by Sargent Shriver. His dream was a new American century of peace, cooperation, humanism, and the victory of moral strength over metal. Our nation’s great promise still lies in its ability to reconcile self-interest with broader, communal commitments. The social programs pioneered by Shriver, the last great civic-republican idealist, stand against the avarice and apathy that have rendered us suspicious of public service.
We are young. Whether we are Generation X, Y, Me or Facebook remains to be seen. As we grow up, we are told to distill cynicism from idealism: to specialize and rationalize. But despite the chorus of partisans and naysayers, Yale and America are still places for lofty dreams and deeds. With the passing of a man that challenged us to do and be better, for God, country and Yale, there is no need to hearken back. Beyond nostalgia, beyond Old Yale, beyond a lifetime spent in the service of others, he leaves us with his famous smile, enduring ideals, and much more work to be done. He was a great thinker. But he was also a man of action. The Sargent Century — one of service, energy and hope — is in our hands. So, let us leave our remembrance and begin our work with his words, written on this page not so long ago: “A diploma from Yale means not, as many believe, that the world owes us something but that we owe the world something. We are the debtors and the debt must be paid.”