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Special Olympics' Mrs. Persuasion : Eunice Kennedy Shriver Spreads the Message: 'Can Do'

November 20, 1987|VICTORIA DAWSON | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — It's Friday night in a small plane bound for Allentown, Pa., and Eunice Kennedy Shriver is asking questions.

She wants to know about Jane Austen, though no subject, it would seem, could be less relevant to Shriver's immediate interests--Special Olympics and the mentally retarded--than a 19th-Century English novelist.

But since her questions have brought her to her seatmate's favorite author, she wants to know: What was Jane Austen like? Was she the one with the nasty father? Were her books well received when she wrote them?

The questions keep coming until, finally, an answer about "Persuasion"--that its heroine was deemed a "nobody" and a "nothing" by her family and her own selflessness--seems to satisfy her.

Shriver's lanky body sinks into a slouch. The briefing notebooks--filled with categorized information on the Pennsylvania Special Olympics, whose games she will visit in less than 12 hours--slide a little closer to the edge of her lap. Her right hand raps absently at the window.

An Inviolable Silence

Several thousand feet above the ground and buckled in, she takes leave of the conversation and turns to stare out the window, into an empty darkness and an inviolable silence. Dressed in a white-on-blue polka-dot outfit, with little, lacy bobby socks creeping out of a pair of blue loafers, she sits in silence. Bobby pins dangle in her tousled thick hair, loose and useless like so many extra twigs in a nest.

Long minutes pass.

"That's interesting," she says suddenly. "I find that very interesting.

"You see, that's how the children are--that's what happens to them," she says. "So often they are isolated and overlooked, even by their own families. Pushed aside by society."

She leans toward the floor, rummages through a bag, pulls out a black notebook and prints on the top of a page, "GET 'PERSUASION.' "

Ethel Kennedy, Shriver's sister-in-law, says, "She's just got her own spin on everything. It's a little different from everyone else. Like putting a spin on a billiards shot."

Shriver is constantly splicing together the most unlikely subjects and ideas--mixing something that was squirreled away in her mind years ago with a new scrap of information: Jane Austen and the mentally retarded. Or "E.T." and the mentally retarded.

" 'E.T.' I just loved 'E.T.,' didn't you?" Shriver says. "After I saw it, I wrote to Steven Spielberg--to see if he would do a (television)) spot for Special Olympics. Because, I thought E.T.--you know, that's how the children are sometimes ignored. Hidden. People are ashamed of them."

An Athletic Empire

Today, Special Olympics is the world's largest year-round program of sports training and competition for children and adults with mental retardation. It reaches more than 1 million athletes, ages 8 and up, and is run by more than half a million volunteers. Shriver is its founder and chairman. Last week, during the VII International Summer Special Olympics Games in South Bend, Ind., more than 4,500 Special Olympics athletes representing every U.S. state and more than 70 countries competed in such sports as aquatics, basketball, bowling, soccer and softball.

Twenty-five years ago, Special Olympics was a backyard summer camp with a three-digit enrollment. The numbers were humble: 100 high-school-age volunteers; 100 mentally retarded children; "about five" paid instructors; a weeklong training session; one swimming pool; sundry horses, dogs, fields and barns. The setting was the Shrivers' farm, Timberlawn, in Rockville, Md.

Sargent Shriver, first director of the Peace Corps and now president of Special Olympics International, says the purpose "was for my wife to see what the truth was. What were the facts? What could the mentally retarded do? In that time you had to see for yourself. . . .

"So she tried everything. She had 'em on horseback, swimming, on a trampoline, shooting bows and arrows, climbing trees, building tree houses, playing tennis. . . .

"It wasn't that she was sitting up there with a magic wand waving to everybody, 'Now do this! Now do that!' She was out there. She'd be in the swimming pool, holding a mentally retarded (teen-ager) up to see whether she could teach him how to kick, how to swim--whether she could get him through the water."

Her Lifelong Spin

There were signs before Timberlawn that Eunice Shriver would devote herself to people with special problems. After earning her bachelor's degree in sociology at Stanford University, she worked first for the State Department reorienting American POWs after World War II, and later for the Justice Department as coordinator of the National Conference on Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency.

But before all that there was Rosemary, three years older than Eunice and, as the family's euphemism goes, "slow to learn."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the youngest of the nine Kennedy children, remembers.

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