Interview: June 15, 2012
A GOOD MAN is a reflection on the life and accomplishments of Mark K. Shriver’s legendary father, Sargent “Sarge” Shriver --- the founder of the Peace Corps and architect of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty --- as well as the principles that guided him. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s co-Founder and President, Carol Fitzgerald, Shriver discusses the incredible undertaking in writing such an intimate portrait, the importance of handwritten letters, and his father’s unconditional love.
Bookreporter.com: You were moved by the comments you heard in the days after your father’s death and at his funeral where people repeatedly cited that he was “a good man.” You started to explore what people meant by that. When did you decide that you were going to write a book about your father?
Mark K. Shriver: I started writing down my thoughts about what it meant for Dad to be “a good man” soon after he died. Before too long, I had pages of ideas. I had dinner with a buddy of mine in New York and told him what I was doing, and he encouraged me to turn those thoughts into a book. I never dreamed of writing a book, much less a book on my dad, but the process has been incredibly rewarding. I have learned about my father as a historical figure, but more importantly, gleaned insights into him as a father, husband and friend. This process revealed lessons that will help me for the rest of my life as I try to balance commitments to work, faith, family and the community, and I hope readers of this book will find ideas they can apply to their own lives.
BRC: Was there any point during your writing where you felt daunted by the project of telling his story?
MKS: When I signed the contract with Henry Holt, I knew then that I had to write a book --- and that scared me! Up to that point, I had written 50 pages or so --- now I had to write and publish a book that did justice to my father’s life story. It had to be more than just a recounting of his achievements, great though they were, because his goodness truly defined him as a human being. And that goodness, which I saw day in and day out, when there were no cameras or press around, was far more impressive to me than his sparkling resume.
BRC: At one point when one of your brothers was crying, your father defined you as “Shrivers,” not Kennedys. Defining the two families as separate --- while still respecting one another --- clearly was very important to him. How did that affect you and your siblings growing up?
MKS: My dad’s family had been very involved in politics and business in Maryland for over 200 years. Dad was very proud of that history. He was also very much in love with my mom and got along very well with his in-laws. But, ultimately, he saw things differently than most people. He thought it was okay to cry because that was a normal emotion. When my siblings or I made a mistake, he always forgave us and offered unconditional love.
BRC: Did you see that unconditional love when you were growing up, or are you only seeing it now on reflection?
MKS: I felt his love throughout my life, but after he died, when working on this book, I reread many of the letters he wrote me, which brought that love to the forefront. I came to understand how this ability to love unconditionally emanated from his deep faith in God. I also talked with my kids about Dad, and their stories about him all demonstrated his love.
BRC: Did this writing bring you closure about your father’s life, or are there still things you feel you want to learn about your father?
MKS: Writing this book definitely brought me to a new level of understanding about my relationship with my father. I think we can always learn from our parents, even after they have died. I am learning from my father every day. Just the other day, a gentleman told me that he was a mid-level staffer at Head Start in the1960s and had run into issues with the governor of Arkansas. Dad didn’t know the staffer, but when the governor called to complain that Head Start funding was bypassing his office and going directly to the poor and that the staffer refused to change the policy, Dad supported this young man. The guy couldn’t believe that Dad didn’t cave to the governor’s wishes but instead supported an unknown, mid-level staffer. I hope the publication of this book will uncover even more stories like this one.
BRC: Through the years your father wrote you letters; in fact, when you were growing up you received them daily. Do you hand write letters to your children?
MKS: Not as often as my dad did, unfortunately. I write to them on big occasions like the end of the school year, their birthdays, or a school event. I wish I wrote more often and I’m getting a little better, but Dad just had an incredible amount of energy. I still can’t believe that he did it so often and so consistently.
BRC: How do you think that today’s world of “instant” communication will affect the legacy that we are leaving for our own children. Today there are many more photos, but sadly a lot fewer written words.
MKS: A reporter who reviewed the book told me that after reading it, he slipped a note under his son’s door the night before he graduated from high school. If this book spurs more parents to handwrite notes to their kids, I would be thrilled --- and so would Dad!
It’s so easy to delete emails or texts --- that handwritten note can be read and reread thousands of times, and each time can shed some new insights.
BRC: Were there any special Father’s Day traditions that you had when you were growing up?
MKS: I remember bringing breakfast to Dad in bed, but I’m pretty sure he was up and ready to go before we got there and had to climb back into bed to accommodate us!
BRC: How are you celebrating Father’s Day this year?
MKS: It’s a different surprise every year, but the day usually begins with breakfast in bed. Unlike my dad, I’m sound asleep so it is a surprise! What happens after that, I don’t know, but as long as I’m with Molly, Tommy and Emma, and my wife, Jeanne, it’s going to be great!