Shriver, Eunice Kennedy (1921—)

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Shriver, Eunice Kennedy (1921—)

American pioneer in advocacy for the mentally and physically challenged, president for many years of the Joseph Kennedy Foundation, and a founder and organizer of the Special Olympics. Name variations: Eunice Kennedy. Born Eunice Mary Kennedy in Brookline, Massachusetts, on July 10, 1921; daughter of Joseph Patrick Kennedy (financier, diplomat, and head of several government commissions) and Rose (Fitzgerald) Kennedy; granted a bachelor's degree in sociology from Stanford University, 1943; married (Robert) Sargent Shriver, in 1953; children: Robert Sargent Shriver III (b. 1954, an investor and film producer); Maria Owings Shriver (b. 1955, an NBC correspondent who married actor Arnold Schwarzenegger); Timothy Perry Shriver (b. 1959, CEO of the Special Olympics); Mark Kennedy Shriver (b. 1963, a Maryland legislator and telephone executive); Anthony Paul Kennedy Shriver (b. 1965, a mental-retardation activist and president of a drug-delivery company).

Worked in the U.S. State Department (1943–45); became foundation director of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation for the care and research of the disabled (1957); campaigned for her brother John F. Kennedy for the presidency of the U.S. (1960); during Kennedy's presidency, became advocate for the developmentally challenged (1962); instituted private day camp for the retarded (1963); joined others in establishing the Special Olympic Summer Games (1968); retired as president of the organization (1988).

A young girl in a wheelchair races toward the finish line, her arms pushing furiously at the wheels. Born with cerebral palsy, she lives with the double burden of being both mentally and physically challenged. To her left, another competitor is gaining on her, but the sound of the cheering crowd encourages her toward the finish line, and suddenly she is over it. Like every other competitor who finishes the event, she receives a hug, but in this international competition she is also the winner of the gold medal.

More than 80 nations now send athletes to compete in the annual Special Olympics, begun in 1968. In nearly every community in the United States, there is a program to sponsor disabled athletes. Official summer sports include aquatics, athletics, basketball, bowling, horseback riding, gymnastics, roller skating, soccer, softball, and volleyball. Official winter sports include alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, figure skating, speedskating, and floor hockey. Thanks to the attitudes of support and competition encouraged by the Special Olympics, thousands of people cross new frontiers of achievement, acquire new skills, gain confidence and make lifelong friends every year. No single person is more responsible for the aims and achievements of its programs than Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

In 1921, Eunice Mary Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, into one of America's more remarkable families. Her father Joseph P. Kennedy had amassed one of the country's largest fortunes; her mother Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy

was the central figure in the family's life. Both parents were Boston Irish, the children of immigrants who came to America when the Irish took the lowest paying jobs and often lived in slums. But Eunice's maternal grandfather John F. Fitzgerald had become mayor of Boston, and her parents had prospered more than anyone might have imagined. Eunice's brothers and sisters included Joseph Kennedy, Jr., John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Rosemary Kennedy , Kathleen Kennedy , Patricia Kennedy Lawford , Robert F. Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith , and Edward "Ted" Kennedy. Rose was a strict but loving mother, and Joseph was frequently away, although he took charge of the children when Rose took vacations from the large clan. Both parents invested a great deal of time in raising their brood, and both expected the children to be successful. Theirs was an extremely close family who enjoyed sailing, horseback riding, conversation, and each other.

When Eunice was five, the family moved to New York. That same year, her father purchased a summer home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, which became the center of happy childhood memories. During the 1930s, while many suffered through the economic throes of the Great Depression, the Kennedy family did not, largely because Joseph Kennedy took most of his investments out of the stock market before the crash in 1929. In 1932, the family's horizons were widened when Joseph Kennedy worked for the presidential campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Roosevelt's election, Kennedy served in his administration as chair of the new Securities and Exchange Commission, the Maritime Commission, and as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Life was exciting for the family who moved first to Washington and then to London, then grew more intense after the Germans began to bombard London in 1940, and the Kennedys moved to the country.

Many would envy the life of Eunice Kennedy, as the daughter of wealthy and prominent parents. But life with the Kennedys was not without trials. Eunice's older sister Rosemary, born during the 1918 flu pandemic, was developmentally challenged. The Kennedys took an unusual step for the era when they refused to institutionalize their daughter. At a time when public opinion sanctioned sending such a child away, to be considered dead by all but the closest family members, Joseph Kennedy posed the question, "What can they do for her that her family can't do better?" For as long as Eunice could remember, Rosemary was part of the family. She looked much like her mother Rose, but she developed slowly. At meals, someone would cut her meat, which she could not do, but she went sailing, and she loved to sing when her mother played the piano. Joseph Kennedy grew increasingly upset about her, however, as he became aware of how little she would ever progress.

After the U.S. entered World War II, the entire family returned to the States. Eunice attended Stanford University and obtained a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1943, then worked in Washington for the State Department from 1943 to 1945. After a brief period at the Department of Justice, she was assigned as a social worker to the Federal Penitentiary for Women in Alderson, West Virginia.

After 1941, her sister Rosemary showed serious signs of deterioration. No longer the contented girl who loved dressing up and having ribbons put in her hair, she grew withdrawn and irritable. She was taken to numerous specialists, one of whom suggested to her father that she undergo a surgical lobotomy. In an era before tranquilizers, the risky operation involved cutting into the lobes of the brain to eliminate the girl's aggressive behavior, while leaving her mental functions relatively intact.

Rosemary was different. My mother was told she would catch up, but she never did.

—Eunice Kennedy Shriver

With what he assumed to be his daughter's best interests at heart, but without telling anyone else in the family, Joseph Kennedy decided to have the lobotomy performed. The surgery, however, was botched, leaving Rosemary in a zombielike state. Eventually, Rosemary was permanently institutionalized, and Joe Kennedy remained tormented by what he had done to his daughter.

On August 12, 1944, tragedy struck again when the oldest son, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., then a pilot stationed in England, was killed on a bombing mission. Four years later, on May 13, 1948, Eunice's sister Kathleen died in a plane crash in Europe. In 1946, Joseph created the Joseph Kennedy, Jr., Foundation in memory of his son, supplying it with more than $1 million a year in funding. When Joe Kennedy asked his daughter Eunice to determine how the foundation's money could best be spent, she began to travel the country visiting institutions for the developmentally challenged. In one place after another, what she found was appalling: adults and children crowded into bleak buildings, treated in many cases like criminals, tied to chairs, reeking of urine, and spending their lives with nothing to do. Most of the care she found was in stark contrast to the treatment Rosemary had received at home, or even in the Catholic institution where she was looked after lovingly by nuns.

For Eunice Kennedy, the next few years were personally and professionally fulfilling as she set about establishing the goals of the Kennedy Foundation. One was to fund research dedicated to mental retardation, a topic that was still rarely discussed in public and that received virtually no attention in the country's medical schools. In 1953, she married Robert Sargent Shriver, and the birth of five children—Robert, Maria, Timothy, Mark, and Anthony—followed in quick succession. Despite the pleasures and demands of her own family, Eunice Kennedy Shriver became director of the Kennedy Foundation in 1957. When her brother John F. Kennedy decided to run for the presidency, the Shrivers became valuable workers in the campaign organization leading up to Kennedy's election in 1960.

In the White House, President Kennedy asked his sister to prepare a report on the physical education of the mentally challenged to be presented to a panel he had organized. Eunice Shriver, however, decided to do a great deal

more. Taking the position that if the president's family could be open about the issue of mental disability, all Americans would be encouraged to do the same, Shriver decided to tell Rosemary's story. Under Eunice's supervision, David Gelman wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post, in which she passed along information from specialists. When the piece appeared, the openness of the Kennedy clan about what long had been seen by many families as a matter of private shame became a dramatic step in changing American attitudes. In 1962, convinced of the value of publicity, Shriver took a further step when she and Sargent persuaded the public service Advertising Council to devise newspaper and magazine ads which targeted the issue.

Remembering how Rosemary had loved sailing, swimming, and camping, Shriver was distressed to discover that no camps existed for the mentally challenged. In June 1963, she and her husband began a five-week day camp in their own spacious backyard in Rockville, Maryland. One hundred volunteers were recruited, one for each day camper, and Shriver was particularly impressed to see how much the skills of the campers improved, especially in team sports.

From 1963 to 1968, Shriver endured the public and personal tragedies of the assassinations of her brothers John and Robert Kennedy as well as the ongoing institutionalization of Rosemary. By this time, Eunice had begun to think about establishing some kind of sporting event for the developmentally challenged. Then, in 1968, Anne McGlone and representatives of the Chicago Park District approached the Kennedy Foundation with the idea of funding a national event organized along Olympic lines for developmentally challenged children. With Eunice Shriver's enthusiastic support, the first Special Olympic Summer Games were launched on July 20, 1968, at Soldier's Field in Chicago. The event was such a success that a nonprofit corporation was established to sponsor future events.

Under Shriver's vigorous leadership, the organization known informally as the Special Olympics grew explosively. An elaborate system was set up to channel athletes through a network of local and regional competitions to reach the national level of annual competition. The program eventually encompassed 25,000 areas and districts, then grew to include an international competition with athletes participating from more than 80 countries. In addition, more than one million athletes in 156 countries participate in local Special Olympics programs.

The Special Olympics differed in some ways from the regular Olympics. For one thing, medals were not awarded to countries, and national anthems were never played; it was the effort and achievement of the individual participants that was honored. For another, "huggers" were assigned to wait across the finish line for every athlete, ready to congratulate them no matter what their time or score.

Many have been amazed by what Special Olympians have achieved. For example, some teams began to compete successfully against their non-disabled peers. A new competition called Unified Sports had to be established for the challenges between the disabled and the nondisabled, and the latter had to learn never to take the ability of their competitors for granted. Unsurprised by this development, Eunice Kennedy Shriver believed in keeping the stakes of the competition high. As she said:

Let us not be satisfied with a game that looks like soccer; an event that is almost like the high jump; a race that could pass for a 400-meter relay…. The bedrock principle on which our program rests is this: for the great majority of the mentally [challenged], Special Olympics is the mainstream.

To guarantee the ongoing financial support of the Special Olympics, Shriver sought corporate sponsors like McDonald's, Nike, Coca Cola, and IBM. Sports celebrities and movie stars were asked to contribute their time, and, with this amalgam of money and glitz, the events began to attract outstanding media attention—attention that the developmentally challenged had long deserved. Eunice's daughter Maria Shriver , by then well known as a television commentator, entreated her husband Arnold Schwarzenegger to coach body building, and other members of the Kennedy clan showed up regularly at Special Olympics fundraisers and events. Queen Noor al-Hussein of Jordan, singer John Denver, and actor Christopher Reeve have taken part, and regular Olympic coaches have donated their time to the training of the athletes. Eunice's son Bobby produced a television special for the ABC network that gained the event more publicity, and since 1968 more than half a million individuals from around the world have been participants. At the Alaska Games in March 2001, over 10,000 athletes competed.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver retired as president of the Special Olympics organization in 1988, at age 67. In 1993, the civil rights of a longignored and overlooked segment of the American population were finally established with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Without Eunice Kennedy Shriver's campaigns to bring the issues of the developmentally challenged out of the closet and onto the playing fields, it is possible that the legislation would still be waiting to be passed. On a more individual level, her work can be seen in the determination that continues to drive Special Olympians across the finish line.


Birmingham, Stephen. "The Kennedy Women: America's Seven Wonders," in Harper's Bazaar. Vol. 113, no. 3227. October 1980, pp. 20, 24, 29–30.

Brown, Fern G. Special Olympics. NY: Franklin Watts, 1992.

Davis, John H. The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster, 1848–1983. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Dietl, Dick. "Special Olympics, Special Lady," in Journal of Rehabilitation. Vol. 49, no. 2. April-May-June 1983, pp. 9, 13–14.

Goodyear, Sara Jane. "1,000 Retarded Kids Compete in Chicago Special Olympics," in Chicago Tribune. Section 1A. July 21, 1968, p. 4.

Moss, Desda. "Disabled's Champion Steps Back," in USA Today. April 11, 1990, p. 2A.

Rainie, Harrison, and Katia Hetter. "The Most Lasting Kennedy Legacy," in U.S. News and World Report. November 15, 1993, pp. 44–47.

Shriver, Eunice Kennedy. "Hope for Retarded Children," in The Saturday Evening Post. Vol. 235, no. 33. September 22, 1962, pp. 71–75.

——, Civia Tamarkin, and Steve Dale. "Eunice Shriver's Olympian Friends," in People Weekly. Vol. 28, no. 7. August 17, 1987, pp. 30–33.

suggested reading:

Leamer, Laurence. The Kennedy Women. Villard, 1994.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia