POTOMAC, Md. — R. Sargent Shriver was always an optimist, pioneering the Peace Corps and running the War on Poverty during the turbulent 1960s — an idealist even as the running mate on a Democratic presidential ticket doomed for failure.
At his funeral Mass on Saturday, mourners from philanthropist and musician Bono to Vice President Joe Biden to former President Bill Clinton honored a man who dedicated his life to serving others. The celebration was filled with songs, laughter and fond memories.
"Fifty years ago, President Kennedy told us we should ask what we can do for our country," Clinton told the gathering at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church. "A whole generation of us understood what President Kennedy meant by looking at Sargent Shriver's life."
Senate to get 1st chance to grill IRS officials
- Conservative talkers, grassroots groups push anti-immigration reform effort
- Obama, Chinese president to meet in June
- White House aides learned of IRS details in April, but didn’t tell Obama
- Senate panel gives green light to test biometric exit program
- Competency questions pile up for White House
- White House defends IRS handling, McConnell asserts 'culture of intimidation'
- Immigration officers' union to oppose Senate bill
- Senate to get 1st chance to grill IRS officials
Shriver, who died Tuesday at age 95, was affectionately known as "Sarge." He grew up during the Great Depression, went to Yale on a scholarship and served in the Navy during World War II. Then, he fulfilled his brother-in-law John F. Kennedy's campaign promise by developing the Peace Corps into a lasting international force.
"When he was starting the Peace Corps from scratch, many people thought he was naive and too idealistic, wanting to send a bunch of young Americans abroad" to some of the poorest countries of the world, said his son, Mark Shriver. "Daddy saw people helping people."
Others were inspired to their own social activism.
"I was a student really of the Sarge way of doing things," U2 frontman Bono told The Associated Press after singing at the service. Bono founded the Red Campaign with Shriver's eldest son Bobby to fight AIDS in Africa.
"It's a rare combination of grace and strategy," Bono said of Sargent Shriver.
First lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey attended. Wyclef Jean played the piano and sang "All the Ends of the Earth" as guests — and even Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington — clapped along. Later, Vanessa Williams softly performed "Soon and Very Soon." Bono and Glen Hansard, who starred in the movie "Once," sang "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace."
One by one, many of Shriver's 19 grandchildren read short remembrances about their grandfather, recalling his passion for helping people, his hugs and his love of baseball.
Cardinal Wuerl told Shriver's grandchildren to live with the same courage and conviction.
Shriver's youngest son, Anthony Shriver, welcomed guests before the Mass began, cracking jokes and honoring his father for always making people feel valued. Anthony Shriver recalled one of his last conversations with his father. He said his father told him: "You tell Cardinal Wuerl to make Eunice a saint!" The crowd erupted in laughter.
Shriver's late wife was Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
Tim Shriver — now chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics — said his father never coddled the children but "coached us to pursue those big, big ideas."
Tim Shriver encouraged others to see the world the way his father did: "I hope you, too, will carry a little Sarge in you."
Maria Shriver, the former NBC reporter and wife of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said her family took comfort in "knowing that Daddy is in heaven with God and with Mummy."
Sargent Shriver was a businessman and lawyer descended from a prominent Maryland family. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past eight years. His wife died in 2009 at age 88.
Shriver will be buried Saturday in the same cemetery as his wife in Hyannis, Mass.
Mark Shriver recalled some of his father's final years.
"Alzheimer's robs you of so much. In Dad's case, it stripped him to the core," he said. Still, he "would shake your hand and smile, look you in the eye and tell you you were the greatest and that he loves you."
Sargent Shriver was former Sen. George McGovern's running mate in the 1972 presidential election, but the Democrats lost in a landslide to President Richard M. Nixon.
Clinton recalled that difficult campaign he worked on, and knowing the McGovern-Shriver ticket would lose. "Everyone knew President Nixon was going to win re-election, unless he robbed a bank," Clinton said, drawing laughs.
Still, Shriver campaigned until the end, even when it was most difficult.
"Sargent Shriver was going to go out with his head held high," Clinton said.
Biden credited Shriver for helping him win his own Senate seat in Delaware during a tough race that same year.
A last-minute visit from Shriver put him over the top in a heavily Republican state at the time. "That's when the sun rose for me," Biden said.
"He refused to allow pessimism to shape his thinking," Biden said. "It wasn't in his DNA."
In 1994, Shriver received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. His son Anthony recalled the day his father received that honor, addressing Clinton.
"I'll never forget him there in the White House and you looking at him and giving him one of those big Bill Clinton hugs," he said. "Wow was he high that day."
As the family walked out with the casket, Bono and Hansard led the crowd in singing "Forever Young."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.