Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Founder of Special Olympics, Dies
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Published: August 11, 2009
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a member of one of the most prominent families in American politics and a trailblazer in the effort to improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities, died early Tuesday morning at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass. She was 88. Her death, at 2 a.m., was confirmed by her family in a statement. A family friend said that Mrs. Shriver had been in declining health for months, having suffered a series of strokes.
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Eunice Kennedy Shriver watched as participants in the Special Olympics paraded at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1973. More Photos »
Eunice Kennedy Shriver Dies at 88
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Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver waved to well-wishers as they leave St. Francis Xavier Church after the wedding of their daughter, Maria, to Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1986. More Photos >
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Read All Comments (146) »A sister of President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy and the mother-in-law of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Mrs. Shriver never held elective office. Yet she was no stranger to Capitol Hill, and some view her work on behalf of the developmentally challenged, including the founding of the Special Olympics, as the most lasting of the Kennedy family’s contributions.
“When the full judgment of the Kennedy legacy is made — including J.F.K.’s Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, Robert Kennedy’s passion for civil rights and Ted Kennedy’s efforts on health care, workplace reform and refugees — the changes wrought by Eunice Shriver may well be seen as the most consequential,” U.S. News and World Report said in its cover story of Nov. 15, 1993.
Edward Kennedy said in an interview in October 2007: “You talk about an agent of change — she is it. If the test is what you’re doing that’s been helpful for humanity, you’d be hard pressed to find another member of the family who’s done more.”
As an example, Mr. Kennedy cited the opening ceremony of the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, where a crowd of 80,000 cheered as President Hu Jintao welcomed more than 7,000 athletes to China, a country with a history of severe discrimination against anyone born with disabilities.
Mrs. Shriver’s official efforts on behalf of people with developmental challenges began after she became the executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation in 1957. The foundation was established in 1946 as a memorial to her oldest brother, who was killed in World War II. Under Mrs. Shriver’s direction, it focused on the prevention of mental retardation and improving the ways in which society deals with people with intellectual disabilities.
“In the 1950s, the mentally retarded were among the most scorned, isolated and neglected groups in American society,” Edward Shorter wrote in his book “The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation.” “Mental retardation was viewed as a hopeless, shameful disease, and those afflicted with it were shunted from sight as soon as possible.”
The foundation was instrumental in the formation of President Kennedy’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961, development of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (which is now named for Mrs. Shriver) in 1962, the establishment of a network of mental retardation research centers at major medical schools across the United States in 1967 and the creation of major centers for the study of medical ethics at Harvard and Georgetown in 1971.
In 1968, the foundation helped plan and provided financing for the First International Special Olympics Summer Games, held at Soldier Field in Chicago that summer.
“I was just a young physical education teacher in the Chicago Park District back in the summer of 1968, a time of horrific tragedy for the Kennedy family, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver wrapped her arms around the very first Chicago Special Olympic games held at Soldier Field,” Justice Anne M. Burke of the Illinois Supreme Court said in an e-mail message. “I will never forget at the start of the games when she asked me to go to Sears and buy her a $10 bathing suit so she could jump in the pool with the Special Olympics swimmers.”
Just weeks after her brother Senator Robert F. Kennedy was killed, Mrs. Shriver said in her address at the opening ceremony, “The Chicago Special Olympics prove a very fundamental fact, the fact that exceptional children — children with mental retardation — can be exceptional athletes, the fact that through sports they can realize their potential for growth.”
This was an extraordinary idea at the time. The prevailing thought had been that mentally retarded children should be excluded from physical activity for fear that they might injure themselves. As a result, many were overweight or obese.
The first Special Olympics brought together 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada for competition. In December 1968, Special Olympics Inc. was established as a nonprofit charitable organization. Since then the program has grown to almost three million athletes in more than 180 countries.
The Kennedy family learned firsthand about these issues through Rosemary Kennedy, the third of nine children and the oldest daughter, who was born mildly retarded in 1918, about a year after John F. Kennedy. Rosemary spent her childhood in the Kennedy household, unlike many developmentally challenged children who grew up in institutions, sometimes as their families told friends that they had died.
Rosemary and Eunice developed a close bond, participating in sports including swimming and sailing and traveling together in Europe. “I had enormous affection for Rosie,” Mrs. Shriver said in an interview with NPR in April 20