Obituary: Eunice Kennedy Shriver / JFK sister, advocate for mentally disabled

July 10, 1921 -- Aug. 11, 2009


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Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the presidential sister who founded the Special Olympics and helped demonstrate that the mentally disabled can triumph on the field of competition and lead productive lives outside the walls of institutions, died yesterday at age 88.

Mrs. Shriver had suffered a series of strokes in recent years and died at a Cape Cod hospital in Hyannis, Mass., in the company of her husband, her five children and her 19 grandchildren, her family said.

"She understood deeply the lesson our mother and father taught us: Much is expected of those to whom much has been given," said her sole surviving brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who is battling a brain tumor.

She was also the sister of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy; the wife of 1972 vice presidential candidate R. Sargent Shriver; the mother of former NBC newswoman Maria Shriver; and the mother-in-law of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Eunice Shriver was credited with helping to bring the mentally disabled into the mainstream and transforming America's view of them from institutionalized patients to friends, neighbors and athletes.

Her efforts were inspired in part by the struggles of her mentally disabled sister, Rosemary, who was given a lobotomy at age 23 and spent the rest of her life in an institution.

At the time, those with mental retardation were often a secret source of shame to their families and were quietly put away in institutions.

Mrs. Shriver revealed her sister's condition to the nation during her brother's presidency in a 1962 article for the Saturday Evening Post.

"The truth is that 75 to 85 percent of the retarded are capable of becoming useful citizens with the help of special education and rehabilitation," Mrs. Shriver wrote. "Another 10 percent can learn to make small contributions, not involving book learning, such as mowing a lawn or washing dishes."

Realizing they were far more capable of playing sports than the experts said, Mrs. Shriver in 1968 started what would become the world's largest athletic competition for the mentally disabled. The first Special Olympics -- a two-day event in Chicago -- drew more than 1,000 participants from 26 states and Canada.

Now more than 3 million athletes in more than 160 countries participate in Special Olympics. The games have given rise to countless uplifting stories of success against great odds.

"She believed that people with intellectual disabilities could -- individually and collectively -- achieve more than anyone thought possible. This much she knew with unbridled faith and certainty," said her son Timothy, chairman of the Special Olympics.

President Barack Obama said Mrs. Shriver will be remembered as "as a champion for people with intellectual disabilities, and as an extraordinary woman who, as much as anyone, taught our nation -- and our world -- that no physical or mental barrier can restrain the power of the human spirit."

Former Special Olympics athlete Kester Edwards credited Mrs. Shriver and the games with helping him "find a place."

"Mrs. Shriver wasn't making cars, she wasn't selling houses, she was changing human lives," said Mr. Edwards, 35, who works as an athlete coordinator at Special Olympics headquarters in Washington and was an athlete from 1981 to 1999. "She taught me to accept me as I am."

Mrs. Shriver was born in Brookline, Mass., the fifth of nine children to Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. She earned a sociology degree from Stanford University in 1943 after graduating from a British boarding school while her father served as ambassador to England.

Her sister Rosemary learned to read and write with the help of special tutors and for a while had a lively social life of tea dances and trips to Europe. She and Eunice used to swim and sail together.

But as Rosemary got older, her father worried his daughter's condition would lead her into situations that could damage the family's reputation, and he authorized a lobotomy in the hope of calming her mood swings. She ended up in worse condition and lived out the rest of her days in an institution, dying in 2005.

Mrs. Shriver was a social worker at a women's prison in Alderson, W.Va., and worked with the juvenile court in Chicago in the 1950s before taking over the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation with the goal of improving the treatment of the mentally disabled. The foundation was named for her oldest brother, who was killed in World War II.

When JFK was in the White House, Mrs. Shriver successfully pressed for efforts to help the mentally disabled. In 1961, the president signed a bill she championed to form the first President's Committee on Mental Retardation -- then handed his pen to her as a keepsake.

Mrs. Shriver was also an ardent opponent of abortion who in 1992 joined then-Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania in criticizing the Democratic Party's abortion-rights agenda.

She had close ties to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, and financed its creation of what became a national curriculum for teaching the Catholic faith to those with cognitive disabilities. She chose Pittsburgh as her laboratory because she knew and respected the work of its diocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program to Improve Catholic Religious Education for Children and Adults with Mental Retardation was published in 1996.

"The curriculum will help to teach people with mental retardation the glories and challenges of the Catholic faith," she said.

The Rev. Kris Stubna, the diocesan secretary for education, called her "very keen, very intelligent and very passionate. She was passionate about inclusion and her desire to help people with special needs feel part of the faith community."

In 1953, she married R. Sargent Shriver. He became JFK's first director of the Peace Corps, was George McGovern's running mate in 1972, and ran for president himself briefly in 1976.

She was the recipient of numerous honors, including the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she received in 1984. Well into her 70s, she remained a daily presence at the Special Olympics headquarters.

With her death, Jean Kennedy Smith becomes the last surviving Kennedy daughter.

"When the full judgment on the Kennedy legacy is made -- including JFK'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," Harrison Rainie, author of "Growing Up Kennedy," wrote in U.S. News & World Report in 1993.

Survivors include her husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2003, and the couple's children: Maria, who is married to Mr. Schwarzenegger; Robert, a city councilman in Santa Monica, Calif.; Timothy; Mark, an executive at the charity Save the Children; and Anthony, founder and chairman of Best Buddies International, a volunteer organization for the mentally disabled.


Post-Gazette staff writer Ann Rodgers contributed to this report.


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