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Shriver, Eunice Mary Kennedy

SHRIVER, Eunice Mary Kennedy

(b. 10 July 1921 in Brookline, Massachusetts), civic worker and activist who helped to establish numerous programs in the 1960s focusing on mental retardation and physical fitness, including the Special Olympics.

Shriver, a Roman Catholic, was the fifth of nine children of the businessman and financier Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., a successful entrepreneur, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. She attended Roman Catholic convent schools and graduated from a British boarding school during her father's tenure as the U.S. ambassador to England. She graduated from Stanford University in California with a B.S. in sociology in 1943. From 1943 to 1945 she worked with the U.S. Department of State's special war problems division, helping former World War II prisoners of war adjust to civilian life. She was a social worker from 1947 to 1954 at a Virginia federal penitentiary and at a Chicago youth shelter and juvenile court.

She married Sargent Shriver on 23 May 1953 and gave up paid employment with the birth of their first child in 1954. In 1956 she became the executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation, created in 1946 to honor the memory of Shriver's oldest brother, who was killed in a plane crash during World War II. She also worked on the political campaigns of her brothers John, Robert, and Edward ("Ted"), including John's successful 1960 presidential campaign.

Established by Joseph Kennedy, Sr., the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation focused primarily on supporting various Catholic organizations and institutions for the mentally handicapped, including the Saint Coletta institution in Wisconsin, where Shriver's mentally handicapped sister, Rosemary, lived. By the early 1960s Shriver had changed the foundation's focus to emphasize research into preventing retardation and toward various efforts aimed at educating the public about mental retardation. In 1961 she persuaded President John F. Kennedy, her brother, to establish the Presidential Committee on Mental Retardation. The committee's recommendations led to the establishment in 1962 of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.

That same year Shriver helped to create the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Awards in mental retardation and convinced her family that they needed to go public with the story of her mentally handicapped sister. The result was an article by Shriver in the Saturday Evening Post that revealed how the mildly handicapped Rosemary had undergone brain surgery to mitigate her violent tendencies, only to have her overall condition worsen. The article represented a major step forward in removing the veil of secrecy and shame that surrounded mental retardation.

With the help of her husband, Shriver began a summer day camp in 1963 at Timberlawn, a summer home they rented that included 200 acres and a Civil War–era mansion. At the camp, mentally challenged children and adults could enjoy normal summer vacation activities. The camp was especially successful in demonstrating that the mentally challenged could participate in and benefit from recreational programs and the same sports that those without handicaps played. Shriver, who taught a gym class at the camp, quickly realized that many of the children were extremely capable athletes. As a result, she implemented the establishment of fitness standards and tests for individuals with mental retardation as well as further research to develop these standards. These tests were similar to the physical fitness program established by President Kennedy that targeted U.S. schoolchildren.

After so many accomplishments, many people might have rested on their laurels, but Shriver was just getting started. In 1964, again through the foundation, she initiated a five-year public information campaign by the National Advertising Council to promote acceptance and understanding of people with mental disabilities. Shriver was also instrumental in influencing the passage of key bills aimed at combating retardation, including the 1964 changes in civil service regulations to employ persons with mental retardation based on their ability rather than artificial test scores.

One of the major participants in a camp program that evolved from Shriver's efforts at Timberlawn was the Chicago Park District. In 1968, through a foundation grant to the park district, Shriver expanded the program by establishing the first Special Olympics Games. One thousand handicapped athletes from throughout the United States and Canada attended the games. They competed in events similar to the regular Olympics. Since Shriver started the Special Olympics, the program has grown to involve more than 1.5 million athletes from 130 nations competing in twenty-two sports. When asked in an article for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (17 Dec. 2001) whether she was surprised at the growth of the program, Shriver replied, "I am surprised. Not at the Special Olympians, because I think they have enormous … gifts.… I think the growth comes from them. And that doesn't surprise me."

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center was founded in 1969 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to focus on research into the biological and environmental influences on human development, with a special focus on human disabilities. Shriver kept up her activities in the decades following the 1960s, including heading the foundation and many of its programs. In 1971 she helped to create major centers for the study of medical ethics at Harvard University and at Georgetown University, which named its center the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. Other important programs initiated by Shriver and the foundation include the 1990 establishment of the Community of Caring programs in 450 public and private schools. She has received numerous awards, including the 1984 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, and the 2002 Theodore Roosevelt Award, the highest honor bestowed to an individual by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. She and her husband had five children, including Maria Shriver, a news broadcaster and the wife of the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Shriver's work throughout the 1960s and beyond reflected not only her own devotion to improving the lives of those with mental retardation but also a decade in which social consciousness and the rights and abilities of others, whether they were racial minorities or the handicapped, came to the forefront in America. Adamant and hard-driving in her efforts, Shriver also was noted for her wit and sensitivity. Her efforts on behalf of the mentally handicapped served as a precursor to the larger movement to secure rights for people with all types of disabilities. Perhaps Shriver summed up her philosophy and her contributions best when, at the first Special Olympics, she said, "What you are winning by your courageous efforts is far greater than any game. You are winning life itself, and in doing so you give to others a most precious prize—faith in the unlimited possibilities of the human spirit."

Rarely is a book written about the Kennedy family without mentioning Shriver and her many accomplishments. Amongthem are Harrison Rainie and John Quinn, Growing Up Kennedy: The Third Wave Comes of Age (1983), and Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Kennedys: An American Drama (1984). For a look at Shriver in relation to the Special Olympics, see Doug Single, Skill, Courage, Sharing, Joy: The Stories of Special Olympics (1992). A good overview of Shriver and her works can be found in the Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, vol. 19 (1999).

David Petechuk

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