By Colman McCarthy
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
My friendship with Eunice Kennedy Shriver began in 1966, when I bumped into her -- literally -- during a pickup basketball game on her backyard court at the Timberlawn estate in Rockville. I had begun working that year for her husband, R. Sargent Shriver, at President Lyndon B. Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity. Before the game, her husband counseled me: Guard her closely; she can be ferocious. Throw an elbow or two and go all-out to win. The worse you beat her, the more she'll like you.
Eunice Shriver devoted her life to full-effort people. On the Bermuda grass at Timberlawn, where she hosted a camp for children with mental disabilities, and later at the Special Olympics, she could be found gamboling among the participants -- encouraging, prodding, congratulating. She truly believed, and she instilled in those events, the idea that it's not what you achieve in life, it's what you overcome. A morally driven and politically astute woman, she sprung open doors globally for the mentally disabled and opened minds that had too long been closed to accepting people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.
With friends, she spoke of herself rarely, and usually in the context of her effort to increase funding for those with mental disabilities. She might say something in passing about how she'd been prodding her brother Teddy to hold hearings for a bill.
More often, though, she played interviewer, probing for information about what you'd been doing lately, pressing to find out whether you were using your gifts well. I'd come away from lunches and dinners with Eunice thinking to myself, "I need to become a better person."
Eunice and her Sargie had the soundest kind of marriage: a union based less on being together than on working together. They raised five loving and lovable children, each now working to fulfill their mother's call to "believe in possibility." Affectionately playful about their mother's piety -- a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary stood a few paces from the front door of the Shriver home in Potomac -- the children had T-shirts made for all the guests at Eunice's 85th birthday party with an image of their mother's face beneath the words "St. Eunice." So canonized by vox populi, she flashed a smile -- fittingly beatific.
I've often wondered why no biography, nor even a New Yorker profile, has been written about this singular woman who bettered the lives of uncounted millions of the otherwise rejected. Of late, we've had biographies of Brooke Astor, Helen Gurley Brown, Julia Child, Mae West and Gypsy Rose Lee (two of her, no less). Apparently fewer people are interested in reading 400 pages about a life of unglittery goodness and giving. About a woman who was faithful to one husband, one church, one mission -- and, worse, who was never jailed, never overdosed and never threw things at stakeout reporters.
No matter. Eunice Shriver had no taste for fame-seeking. She had no publicist, no agent, no handler. All she had was energy, of a steeled kind that never stalled out. It was Olympian energy, special in its grace.
The writer, a former Post columnist, is founder of the Center for Teaching Peace.