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The Olympian Force Behind a Revolution

By J.Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, 88, a member of a political dynasty who devoted her life to improving the welfare of mentally disabled people and founded the Special Olympics to showcase their abilities, died Tuesday at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass. She had had strokes during the past year, a family spokesman said.

Shriver, a sister of President John F. Kennedy and Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, was credited with playing a major role in changing the perception of mental retardation. When she began her work in the field half a century ago, it was common for mentally disabled people to be placed in institutions that did little more than warehouse them. Through Shriver's programs and hands-on efforts, she demonstrated that with appropriate help, most developmentally disabled people can lead productive and useful lives.

In the 1950s, as executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, she shifted the organization's focus from Catholic charities to research on the causes of mental retardation and humane ways to treat it. In 1963, the foundation, which had been established in honor of a brother killed in World War II, published fitness standards and tests for people with intellectual disabilities that became widely used.

When her brother John became president in 1961, she persuaded him to appoint a committee to study developmental disabilities. An outgrowth of the panel's work was the establishment the next year of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as part of the National Institutes of Health.

In 1962, in a groundbreaking article in the Saturday Evening Post, Shriver, the fifth of nine children born to Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, disclosed that her older sister, Rosemary Kennedy, was developmentally disabled. The story demonstrated how not to treat the mentally disabled and summoned a change in conditions that existed on a wide scale.

"Like diabetes, deafness, polio, or any other misfortune, mental retardation can happen in any family," Shriver wrote. It was different from mental illness, she said, and there were no grounds for the belief, widely held at the time, that people with the condition were belligerent or unmanageable.

"The truth is that 75 to 85 percent of the retarded are capable of becoming useful citizens with the help of special education and rehabilitation," Shriver wrote. "Another 10 percent can learn to make small contributions, not involving book learning, such as mowing a lawn or washing dishes."

Rosemary Kennedy, born in 1918 and institutionalized from the time she was 23, never had that opportunity. By 1941, she had become increasingly subject to fits of rage and her mental faculties had declined. Concerned about her behavior and the possibility that men would take advantage of her, her father arranged for her to have a prefrontal lobotomy, an experimental operation in which part of the brain was destroyed.

The results were disastrous. Rosemary regressed into an infantlike state in which she could barely speak and spent most of the time staring at walls. Her father arranged to keep her out of sight, first at an institution in New York and then at St. Coletta School in Wisconsin.

Family members were initially told not to visit Rosemary because medical opinion held that such interruptions would be too upsetting for someone in her condition. A spokesman for the Special Olympics said that Shriver and her siblings later became frequent visitors to St. Coletta and included Rosemary in family gatherings and other activities. Rosemary died in 2005.

A Grass-Roots Tenacity

Shriver, a pencil-thin woman with a big, toothy smile, was well known for her willingness to get close to those she was trying to help -- joining children in their games, listening to and encouraging them, talking to their parents.

"I think that really the only way you change people's attitudes or behavior is to work with them," she told an interviewer. "Not write papers or serve on committees. Who's going to work with the child to change him -- with the juvenile delinquent and the retarded? Who's going to teach them to swim? To catch a ball? You have to work with the person. It's quite simple, actually."

Shriver organized the Special Olympics in 1968. The first competition, a two-day affair at Soldier Field in Chicago, attracted 1,000 contestants from 26 states and Canada. Although a number of famous athletes heeded her request to attend, the spectator turnout was minuscule, and most of the media declined to cover it.

The Special Olympics has become the world's largest year-round sports program for mentally disabled children and adults. More than 2.5 million athletes in 180 countries take part in competitions each year. Contestants work through local and regional meets toward the World Special Olympics, held every two years.

In 1982, Shriver founded the Community of Caring, a program designed to prevent teenage pregnancy and reduce the relatively high incidence of intellectual disabilities among children of teenage mothers. The program emphasizes values and remaining in school, and it involves parents and teachers as well as children. It also works to combat drug and alcohol abuse.

Shriver's honors included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, which was conferred on her in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan.

A Start in Social Service

Eunice Mary Kennedy was born July 10, 1921, at the Kennedy residence in Brookline, Mass. She grew up there and in the Bronx and Bronxville, N.Y. She was educated at Catholic schools, and at one time the family thought she might become a nun.

She graduated in 1943 from Stanford University with a bachelor of science degree in sociology. Her first job was with the State Department in Washington, where she was part of a program to help former prisoners of war become acclimated to civilian life.

In 1946, she worked in John F. Kennedy's first political campaign, for a seat in Congress; she later worked in the campaigns of brothers Robert and Edward. In 1947 and 1948, she was executive secretary of the Justice Department's National Conference on the Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency. Having gained control of a $1 million trust fund at 21, she accepted a salary of $1 a year.

In 1950, she became a social worker at the federal penitentiary for women in Alderson, W.Va. In 1951, she moved to Chicago and worked at the House of the Good Shepherd, a youth shelter, and with the city's juvenile court system.

On May 23, 1953, she and R. Sargent Shriver were married at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. They settled in Chicago, where her husband was manager of the Merchandise Mart, a Kennedy interest.

Sargent Shriver became head of the Office of Economic Opportunity and the founding director of the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration. He was the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic presidential ticket headed by Sen. George S. McGovern in 1972 and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976.

In addition to her husband, of Hyannis Port, Mass., survivors include the couple's five children, Maria Shriver, a former NBC television journalist and the wife of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R); R. Sargent "Bobby" Shriver III, a lawyer who co-founded an anti-poverty group, DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) with U2 lead singer Bono; Mark K. Shriver, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates and an official with Save the Children; Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics board; and Anthony K. Shriver, founder of Best Buddies International, a program that encourages students to work with mentally disabled children.

Survivors also include her brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); a sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland; and 19 grandchildren.

Rejecting 'a Lot of Baloney'

With the advent of the Kennedy administration in 1961, the Shrivers moved to the Washington area. For several years they rented Timberlawn, a 20-acre estate in Rockville.

In 1962, Eunice Shriver established a summer camp at Timberlawn for children with intellectual disabilities, a precursor of the Special Olympics. Many of the children were bused from poorer sections of Washington. Some were unable to speak, eat or care for themselves. She recruited students from the area's elite private schools to work as volunteers at the camp.

The annual four-week camp grew to include about 100 children. It became evident that disabled children had more physical prowess than was generally realized. With the example of the campers and the encouragement of the fitness awards program that had been launched by President Kennedy, Shriver began the Special Olympics.

Early concerns about the program included skepticism about the ability of disabled people to compete and questions about the effects of losing on the competitors' psyches.

The first concern has been answered by the athletes.

As for the latter issue, Shriver told The Post in 1987 that she had "heard a lot of that" and that it was "a lot of baloney."

"What proof have they got that as a group of people they can't take losing?" she said. "Who? Where does it come from, that idea? Somebody cries because they lose? I can tell you 50 people who cry -- I go and watch my own kids cry when they lose."

This obituary was prepared in advance by former Washington Post obituaries editor J.Y. Smith, who died in 2006.

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