Shriver Passing Reminds of Washington Face-off on Job Corps in Texas

August 15, 2009

This week’s news coverage of  Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s death and her legacy in founding the revered Special Olympics program included a saddening picture of her still-living  husband Sargeant Shriver, first director of the Peace Corps and first director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and its Job Corps program.  The sight of a frail, weakening Shriver was in dramatic contrast to the robust and spirited Great Society warrior that I faced across a conference room table in the company  of  Texas Governor John Connally back in 1965. 

The issue was who was going to run the controversial Job  Corps Training Center in San Marcos–Connally and his people, or Shriver and his Texas deputy, OEO regional director William H. Crook, a  President Lyndon Johnson loyalist. Connally had been leery of the Job Corps program, a Johnson brainchild, created to–in his words, “train..young men in the skills…to contribute to the community…and become leaders of their fellow men.”  But typical of Connally’s approach to things, he shaped his own vision of how to make a success of it in Texas.  Other states typically turned over the program to an educational entity. Connally organized the state’s own non-profit, run by a board of prominent educators, and recruited the state’s top industrialists to  help shape  courses that would best equip students to qualify for currently available lucrative jobs (such as underwater welding and heavy construction equipment operation).  He even persuaded Texas Instruments to loan a senior level excutive full time to manage the enterprise. The divided federal-state authority had spawned growing tensions between Washington and Austin, of course, added to by suspicions that Washington was sending the toughest of its recruits from Chicago to Gary on purpose, leading to incidents in nearby San  Marcos and Austin communities. Hence the summit meeting in DC. 

Connally had strong words about what he viewed as bureaucratic arrogance and interference from OEO, but Shriver,  no shrinking violet himself, reminded that it was, after all, a federal program. Predictably, the Governor carried the day (it helps to have a close friend  in the White House). But as a practical matter, we agreed to co-exist. Now a rare government story that has a good ending, the Gary Job Corps program has been widely acknowleged to be one of the most successful in the nation. Today–45 years later, it is the largest of all 124 Job Corps centers in the U.S, and is home to more than 1650 male and female sudents.

–Julian Read

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