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Eunice Shriver, Special Olympics founder and sister of JFK, dies at 88

Shriver, the mother of Maria Shriver, advocated tirelessly for the mentally disabled. Her contributions to the disability rights movement have been called the greatest Kennedy legacy.

August 12, 2009|Valerie J. Nelson and Elizabeth Mehren | Mehren is a former Times staff writer.

Women in mid-20th century America were not yet welcome on the grand political stage, but Eunice Kennedy Shriver -- a daughter of uncommon privilege who defined herself as a mother above all -- didn't much care. As the younger sister of President Kennedy and with a family foundation behind her, she became an unstoppable advocate for the mentally disabled.

In the early 1960s, Shriver pushed mental retardation onto the national agenda. Her brother Robert, who was JFK's attorney general, once joked: "President Kennedy used to tell me, 'Let's give Eunice whatever she wants so I can get on with the business of government.' "

Shriver's advocacy for those with special needs would never end once it took root in sports. In 1968, she founded the Special Olympics, the athletic competition for the mentally disabled.

During the first games, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley told her: "Eunice, the world will never be the same."

Shriver, who was also the sister of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the mother of California First Lady Maria Shriver, died Tuesday at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass., her family said. She was 88.

In a speech last fall at the Women's Conference in Long Beach, Maria Shriver said her mother had had several strokes.

Two days before she was hospitalized in November 2007, Eunice Shriver was honored for her work with the disabled at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston at an event organized by her children. That fall, she also had traveled to Shanghai to attend her final Special Olympics.

"Eunice was the light of our family," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said of his mother-in-law in a statement. "She meant so much, not only to us, but to our country and to the world. She was a pioneer who worked tirelessly for social and scientific advances that have changed the lives of millions of developmentally disabled people all over the world."

President Obama called Shriver "a champion for people with intellectual disabilities" and "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."

Shriver's unflagging support for the mentally disabled, who for generations were hidden in shame and secrecy in America, has been called the Kennedy family's most important campaign and was considered a precursor to the larger disability rights movement.

"When the full judgment of the Kennedy legacy is made -- including JFK's Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, Robert Kennedy's passion for civil rights and Edward Kennedy's efforts on healthcare, workplace reform and refugees -- the changes wrought by Eunice Shriver may well be the most consequential," U.S. News & World Report magazine said in a 1993 cover story.

Edward Shorter, author of "The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation" (2000), said that "no family has done more than the Kennedys to change negative attitudes about mental retardation."

The founding of the Special Olympics went a long way toward erasing long-held stigmas that the Kennedy family knew well because Eunice had a sister who was mentally disabled. And the federal money that was unleashed resulted in research breakthroughs and a proliferation of educational programs.

President Kennedy enabled Shriver to help create both the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development and the President's Committee on Mental Retardation. She made the issue so important to her brother that he reportedly left an emergency meeting during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to receive the committee's report.

More than 70% of the presidential committee's 112 recommendations were eventually implemented, according to the U.S. News & World Report article on Shriver and the Kennedy family's largely overlooked accomplishment. In the mid-1960s, more than $400 million a year in federal funds was appropriated to benefit the mentally disabled, which included hospital-improvement programs. More than twice that amount was being spent each year by states, local governments and private organizations, said a 1967 report by the president's committee.

The advancements marked a "historic emergence of mental retardation . . . from isolation and public indifference," the report said.

"If she had been a man, she certainly would have been a candidate for president," Shorter told The Times. "Instead, she unleashed her tremendous executive energy on behalf of this cause and helped change history."

Under her brother's presidency, the history of mental retardation entered a new phase, according to Shorter.

"People with MR began to experience a new visibility and a growing acceptance," he wrote. "This was an historic accomplishment: the ability to demonstrate one's human worth despite the presence of a great handicap."

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