Friday, 21 August 2009


"A Champion of the Disabled at the Nexus of Political Power

Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the organization she founded, the Special Olympics, worked for more than four decades to erase the stigma surrounding the mentally disabled.

On Tuesday, as the world mourned Mrs. Kennedy Shriver's death, an athlete from Trinidad and Tobago, Kester Edwards, recalled how participating in the games as a swimmer and soccer player transformed his childhood.

"That's when I started to accept who I am," said Mr. Edwards, now 35 years old and an athlete coordinator for the Special Olympics' Washington, D.C., office. "I was coming from a small island where people didn't understand intellectual disabilities—they used the word 'retard.' "

From a groundbreaking 1962 magazine article that disclosed the mental disability of her sister, Rosemary, to the Special Olympics games that now host competitions for three million athletes in more than 180 countries, Mrs. Kennedy Shriver championed the potential of a once-overlooked community.

She was "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," President Barack Obama said in a statement Tuesday.

Mrs. Kennedy Shriver died Tuesday at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass., following complications from strokes and pneumonia. She was 88.

Part of the politically influential Kennedy clan, Mrs. Kennedy Shriver was a sister of the late President John F. Kennedy, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward Kennedy, and the mother of Maria Shriver, the first lady of California. She had been married since 1953 to Sargent Shriver, who served as the first director of the U.S. Peace Corps. Mr. Shriver, who survives his wife, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Mrs. Kennedy Shriver advocated for children's charities and improving urban communities, but was best known for her work raising awareness about the disabled. For years, she had invited mentally disabled children to a summer camp held in the backyard of "Timberlawn," as her Maryland home was known. In July 1968, she founded the Special Olympics, just weeks after her brother Robert was assassinated as he campaigned for the presidency.

Born on July 10, 1921, in Brookline, Mass., Mrs. Kennedy Shriver was the fifth of Joseph and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy's nine children. A devout Catholic, she originally planned to become a nun, according to "The Kennedys: An American Drama" by Peter Collier and David Horowitz.

She earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Stanford University, did social work in New York City's Harlem neighborhood and worked for the State Department helping Americans held prisoner during World War II adjust to life back in the U.S. For a while, she lived with her brother John, at the time a freshman congressman, in a Georgetown town house, working as a government secretary.

Sargent Shriver courted her doggedly for seven years, before concluding he had to start dating other women, Messrs. Collier and Horowitz wrote. Hearing this, Mrs. Kennedy Shriver rushed home from Europe, declaring, "He's not marrying anybody but me." When the couple wed in 1953, Mrs. Kennedy Shriver had to climb a ladder to cut the eight-layer wedding cake—a seven-foot pastry replicated in 1986, when her daughter married bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, now governor of California.

Mrs. Kennedy Shriver's siblings figured prominently in her life. She campaigned for her brothers at block parties and traveled to Texas when John Kennedy ran for president. Her sister Rosemary's struggles helped propel her to start the Special Olympics and initiate legislative changes.

In 1962, Mrs. Kennedy Shriver wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post making public the Kennedy family's struggle with Rosemary's disabilities and the decision to commit her to an institution.

"It was a brave, brave thing to write because it was something no one talked about," said Special Olympics spokeswoman Kirsten Suto Seckler.

She wasn't shy when lobbying presidents, including her brother, who won passage of a law establishing research centers for mental disabilities. As president, John F. Kennedy joked that Eunice was the only family member he feared seeing.

"She always had an agenda," he said, according to a family Web site dedicated to Mrs. Kennedy Shriver."


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