Faithful Departed — Eunice Kennedy Shriver

(1921-2009)

Eunice Kennedy Shriver poses with an athlete at the 1999 Special Olympics World Summer Games in North Carolina.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver poses with an athlete at the 1999 Special Olympics World Summer Games in North Carolina.

It’s difficult now to grasp what a radical thing Eunice Kennedy Shriver was undertaking in the 1960s, when she founded the precursor of the Special Olypics, then fostered the later event’s success. We sit, after all, in a time — thank goodness — when we have largely lost the ability to flinch in the face of physical or mental hindrance in our brothers and sisters. We prefer to take people as they are, and our world is better for it.

This is due quite directly to Eunice Shriver, who began her work in a vastly different era when handicaps were something to be hushed up about, or hidden from view. After all, she caused a minor scandal in America in 1962 when she penned an article in the Saturday Evening Post acknowledging that her sister Rosemary, one of the nine Kennedy siblings, was developmentally disabled. This was considered a taboo for any family at the time, even one whose members included the President and Attorney General of the United States.

Shriver by all accounts was the sort of person who never blushed, and never backed down. As important as she considered it to force into the public conscience an awareness of Rosemary and others like her, she put a far greater priority on the work that caused much less instant fuss, but that has had much greater, lasting effect. In the same year she introduced the world to her sister, Shriver hosted a camp for the handicapped during summer days on the grounds of her farm. The idea for “Camp Shriver” was simple: allow those with disabilities the chance to enjoy each other’s company and take part in friendly competition — without judgment, without spectacle. It sounded so small, but the humanizing effect of sportsmanship was enormous.

The Special Olympics

The idea for “Camp Shriver” was simple: allow those with disabilities the chance to enjoy each other’s company and take part in friendly competition — without judgment, without spectacle. It sounded so small, but the humanizing effect of sportsmanship was enormous.

By the end of the decade, the Special Olympics — as it came to be called — had gone international, drawing together athletes of all backgrounds and finding its way onto our TV sets. But the regional gatherings — the ones where groups of young people board humble buses for basketball games and relay races against athletes from the next county over — are what have really affected the public conscience. Anyone who has ever volunteered at a local Games can attest to the whole new way they have allowed those born with and without disabilities to interact: the athletes are the stars; we literally hold their water for them, knowing no greater thrill than to cheer them across the finish line.

Though Shriver was closely linked with the Special Olympics she never felt satisfied to confine her efforts to the event, even as it took on a wonderful life of its own. She also helped guide the work of her family foundation, and played a hand in the start of both Community of Caring and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (which now bears her name).

When Shriver’s brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, passed away only two weeks after her in August, the tributes quickly died down, and the focus shifted. It was understandable, given Ted’s many decades in the public eye. But behind the scenes, no Kennedy has ever done more to change our country for the better than Eunice Shriver. May she — and the people she devoted her life to serving — never be forgotten.