A Sister Of Jfk, An Advocate For The Mentally Frail

Eunice Kennedy Shriver 1921-2009

August 12, 2009|By a Baltimore Sun reporter

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a champion of the mentally retarded, the wife of a one-time vice presidential candidate and the sister of a president, died early Tuesday surrounded by relatives at a Hyannis, Mass., hospital. She was 88.

Shriver had suffered a series of strokes in recent years and died at Cape Cod Hospital, her family said in a statement. Her husband, her five children and all 19 of her grandchildren were by her side, the statement said.

A Potomac resident for more than 40 years, Mrs. Shriver was an activist in the field of mental retardation and founded the Special Olympics for mentally disabled athletes. She was the wife of Peace Corps founding director and one-time vice presidential candidate R. Sargent Shriver and a sister of the late President John F. Kennedy.

Mrs. Shriver's son, Mark K. Shriver, is a former Maryland state delegate from Montgomery County. Her daughter Maria Shriver is a former NBC correspondent who is married to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

With Eunice Shriver's death, Jean Kennedy Smith becomes the last surviving daughter of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy.

"She was the light of our lives, a mother, wife, grandmother, sister and aunt who taught us by example and with passion what it means to live a faith-driven life of love and service to others," the family said.

The hospital is near the Kennedy family's Hyannis compound, where her sole surviving brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, has been battling a brain tumor.

Senator Kennedy said his earliest memory of his sister was as a young girl "with great humor, sharp wit, and a boundless passion to make a difference."

"She understood deeply the lesson our mother and father taught us: Much is expected of those to whom much has been given," he said. "Throughout her extraordinary life, she touched the lives of millions, and for Eunice that was never enough."

President Barack Obama said Mrs. Shriver would be remembered 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."

As celebrity, social worker and activist, Mrs. Shriver was credited with transforming America's view of the mentally disabled from institutionalized patients to friends, neighbors and athletes. Her efforts were inspired in part by the struggles of her mentally disabled sister, Rosemary.

"She was one of the greatest women of the 20th century and the moral center of the family," said Laurence Leamer, author of "The Kennedy Women."

Mrs. Shriver was born in Brookline, Mass., on July 10, 1921, the fifth of nine children of 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.

While she was best known for her work with the Special Olympics, Mrs. Shriver was equally invested in the 50-year-old Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and newer initiatives such as Community of Caring, which she founded in 1981 to reduce teenage pregnancies and the incidence of mental retardation.

Her commitment "was unwavering, amazing and very real," said Michael Hardman, a former Special Olympics board member from Utah. "One of the things she was able to do is keep her focus, which was making significant changes in the lives of people with mental retardation and their families."

Mrs. Shriver's association with the cause began in her childhood, when she, even more than her other siblings, took particular interest in the care of Rosemary. "It always seemed that Eunice reached out to make sure that Rosemary was included in all the activities - whether it was dodge ball or duck duck goose," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy recalled in 1987.

Mrs. Shriver always maintained, though, that her interest in the issue was founded on more than just personal history; the plight of the mentally retarded, for years segregated from the social mainstream and avoided in open conversation, appealed to her most basic instincts, she said.

"I think that really the only way you change people's attitudes or behavior is to work with them. Not write papers or serve on committees," she said in a 1966 interview. "Who's going to work with the child to change him, with the juvenile delinquent and the retarded? Who's going to teach him to swim? To catch a ball? You have to work with the person. It's quite simple, really."

Mrs. Shriver's work started behind the scenes.

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