It wasn’t exactly “Meet the Parents” the first weekend I went to Hyannis Port. I had seen Sarge and Eunice Shriver in magazines and on television, and I felt like I knew them. And Sarge said he knew all about me. He had read a book that included me as one of the successful recent immigrants to America.
Still, I wanted to impress them. Sarge was a political man, so around the dinner table when the conversation turned to politics, I was ready to participate. With passion and vigor and a thick accent, I avidly praised Richard Nixon.
I told them how coming from a socialist country, I was so impressed by Nixon’s determination to defeat communism and spread freedom. I went on and on about how Nixon had inspired me, made me believe in America, in its dream, and in all it has to offer.
Sarge had run for vice president on a ticket with George McGovern five years earlier, and they were defeated by Nixon and Spiro Agnew. So the fact that his daughter’s date was singing Nixon’s praises may have galled him. But from the first day I met him until the day he died, Sarge never tried to persuade me, his Republican son-in-law, to be a Democrat. He never tried to have a political debate.
Sarge was better than that.
Think about that. There I was, a Republican. I admired Nixon. I believed in the power of the mind, the power of the body, the power of the will. But Sarge never tried to convert me. Instead, through example and civil conversation, he taught me to believe in the power of the heart above all.
I wasn’t always a perfect student, but he remained a perfect teacher. Sarge just wanted me to use my talents, charisma, personality — whatever I could muster — to serve. Always, the conversation with him was about how we could use the best parts of ourselves to help others.
That’s what motivated me to get involved in Special Olympics. I came to realize I got far more joy and satisfaction coaching a kid in Special Olympics than I ever did walking a Hollywood red carpet. And that’s why I volunteered to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, encouraging kids to work out, participate in sports and develop healthy bodies. Sarge is why I developed after-school programs and led the fight for the 2002 California ballot initiative to fund before- and after-school programs. Ultimately, his call to service is why I ran for governor and devoted seven years to doing the best I could for the people of California.
Sarge was a motivator. I’ve known great directors, great athletes, great coaches and trainers, great speakers and great actors. I’ve known presidents, kings and prime ministers. But Sargent Shriver was the greatest motivator I have ever known.
Break mirrors, Sarge said in a renowned 1994 commencement speech he gave at Yale. Stop looking at yourself. Stop being so self-absorbed. Learn more about others — know their hopes and dreams, find out what makes them smile and what makes them weep. That speech hit me. There I was, a bodybuilder. I was someone who literally spent his life in front of mirrors, practicing poses, working on the biceps or the triceps, always checking the mirror for progress. Standing in front of mirrors was my job, my fortune. And Sarge convinced me that the only way to truly succeed is to break those mirrors, to direct that energy and ambition not toward myself but to serving others.
Serve as a Democrat; serve as a Republican. It doesn’t matter if you’re a socialist or a communist, a Catholic, a Jew or an atheist. Just break the mirror, walk out of the room, reach out and help others. It was a simple message. It was the point of Sargent Shriver’s life. And for me it lit a candle in the darkness. It pointed me in the right direction. My ambition had been self-directed. But Sarge Shriver changed that.
And now he’s gone. Saturday, his family and friends gathered in Washington to say goodbye to Sargent Shriver. But as we did, we also celebrated the 95 years of his brilliant life and gave thanks, because we know his spirit will live on in the millions of people around the world helped by the programs he spearheaded — and the millions more of us who have dedicated our lives to service as a result of his inspiration.
In the end, a man’s life is measured not by what he has but by what he has given. Sargent Shriver taught us that — and he lived it.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a former governor of California.