In honor of Father’s Day, actress Jennifer Garner spoke to Mark Shriver, senior vice president of Save the Children in Washington D.C. and author of the new memoir A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, about parenting and advocacy — and how both make our world a better place.
Jennifer: You’ve called your book A Good Man, and I’m curious why you used that phrase for your father instead of a great man?
Mark: The great man is recognized for his achievements in the newspaper, on TV, at fancy galas. The good man can be great in that arena, too, but even greater at home, on the sidewalk, at the diner, with his grandkids, at the supermarket, at church — wherever human interaction requires integrity and compassion. Dad was good because he excelled in the smaller, unseen corners of life. He insisted on greatness in every facet of the daily grind. There are a lot of so-called great men who aren’t good human beings. Paradoxically, it’s harder to be good than it is to be great.
Jennifer: Your dad wrote you letters almost every day — what did that mean to you growing up?
Mark: He would often write and clip newspaper articles for my attention — it could be a baseball box score or an editorial — or a note with a book attached to it. Sometimes his letters discussed the previous night’s dinner conversation, or sometimes they were updates on my mother’s or sibling’s activities. For me, it was a sign of his consistent unconditional love and interest in me. I just knew he cared and was thinking of me every day.
Have you noticed anything that you are doing with your family that is something your parents did or shared with you growing up — like my dad’s note writing?
Jennifer: My mother is a big believer in being responsible for your own happiness. She always talked about finding joy in small moments and insisted that we stop and take in the beauty of an ordinary day. When I stop the car to make my kids really see a sunset, I hear my mother’s voice and smile.
What did you take away from your dad’s life about what it means to be a father?
Mark: While writing this book, I thought a lot about my father’s quiet acts of kindness and his patience — and the unconditional love he showed us even when we made mistakes. I have tried to emulate those qualities but it’s a daily struggle for me. I wasn’t expecting any of these insights, any of these gifts, when I sat down to write about him — I had no idea what I was doing but I am grateful for the entire experience.
What did you learn from your dad and mom that you found gave you particular way of seeing the world or a feeling of what you should be doing with your life?
Jennifer: My parents started with very little and were the only ones in their families to graduate from college. As parents, they focused on education, but did not stop at academics — they made sure that we knew music, saw art and theatre and traveled — even though it meant budgeting like crazy.
So much of your father’s (and mother’s) life was about service to others who were less fortunate, who lived with challenges; what kind of impact did that have on you?
Mark: He was the most outwardly focused person I have ever met. I don’t recall him ever worrying about his legacy — he was proud of his achievements, from serving on the Chicago School Board, to creating the Peace Corps, to leading the War on Poverty, to helping my mother grow Special Olympics, but he talked about the past only as a way to challenge us all to do more for the poor and the forgotten in the future. He was other-focused, not I-focused, and that is the message he gave in a speech to Yale’s graduating class of 1994 — break your mirrors, don’t be so self-absorbed. That’s the way he lived his life and that’s how he challenged not only my immediate family but all those he encountered as well.
On a more personal level, reading and rereading Dad’s words about helping others has inspired me to speak more forcefully about the childhood poverty crisis in this country. In the past, I had been more circumspect when discussing the fact that almost 25 percent of children in America live in poverty. Now, in my work for Save the Children, I tell it like it is: It’s a disgrace and our elected officials, who often claim that our kids are our most important priority, are not putting our money where their mouths are. I hope more citizens will hold our elected officials responsible for their role in this crisis.
You do a lot of advocacy work for children in this country, particularly in the area of poverty; do you feel your parents were an influence in that choice? What do your children think of what you do or how do you talk to them about the work?
Jennifer: My parents are still an enormous influence in my life. I am lucky to have had an attentive, curious and loving dad and heart-smart, down to earth, gifted mother. They changed the outlooks of their own lives and have never forgotten the people and organizations that helped them dream bigger than their circumstances should have allowed.
I am proud to be a part of an organization that gives kids growing up poor in America the same boost my parents received. With our birth to five home visits and in school literacy programs, Save the Children is changing the future for thousands of kids and teaching them to dream big.
Our kids came to me with a portion of their earnings from a recent lemonade stand and asked me to send it to Save the Children to help kids who don’t have books in their homes. They know that I am never sorry to leave when I have a trip to see our programs and I am proud that they are eager to be a part of it.
Happy father’s day to my dad, Bill Garner. I love you.
And to the world’s best — Happy Father’s Day, Ben.