Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s world was one she shared for better – and too often, worse – with her generation of Kennedys: immense wealth and privilege informed by an intense, competitive sense of public duty, but marred time and again by personal tragedy played out in painful public view. Shriver, who died Monday on Cape Cod at age 88, will be remembered as a woman who used her many worldly advantages purposefully to make a better world for the profoundly disadvantaged; specifically, the mentally disabled. Through her life’s work with the Special Olympics, Mrs. Shriver changed a nation’s views of the mentally disabled .
The Special Olympics came to be in Chicago in 1968, only weeks after the death of Shriver’s brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated in early June in Los Angeles as he campaigned for the presidency. That first Special Olympics involved 1,000 competitors from 26 states and Canada. Today, the Special Olympics has a global reach, involving some 2.5 million from some 150 countries.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s interest in her work with the mentally impaired was primally influenced by sisterly compassion for Rosemary Kennedy, her mentally disabled sibling who was institutionalized in Wisconsin at an early age.
Rosemary Kennedy died at age 86 in 2005. Shriver’s death this week leaves only two survivors among nine Kennedy siblings – Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and a sister, Jean Kennedy Smith.
As a Kennedy, Shriver was born into politics, and her marriage to R. Sargent Shriver in 1953 kept her on that path. ‘Sarge’ Shriver served as first head of JFK’s peace Corps in the early ’60s and filled in ably as George McGovern’s last-minute replacement for Tom Eagleton as his vice presidential running mate after Eagleton admitted having been treated for mental health problems. Her connection with the world of politics continues to this day: daughter Maria Shriver, a former reporter for NBC News, is married to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. She is also the mother of four sons.
In 1993, U.S. News & World Report paid Shriver what is perhaps the highest compliment. Assessing her work with the Special Olympics, the newsmagazine concluded that her efforts on behalf of the mentally disabled could well be the most enduring legacy of her generation of the Kennedy family.
That is some praise. The accomplishments of the late president are formidable, and the work of Sen. Ted Kennedy, particularly in the health care arena, figures to be enduring. But the 1993 assessment just may be on the mark. She was, indeed, an agent of change for the better.