Growing up in Boston, you basically learn about Joe and Rose Kennedy and their nine children in school. Anyone from Massachusetts will tell you that public service is the Kennedy family business — and we all know about the sons who gave their lives to and for their country. Not as well known is the contribution of the middle sister and mother of our own City Councilman Bobby Shriver, the recently departed Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whose worked touched millions of people around the world.
Hers is an amazing story. At a time when a woman’s place was in the home, Eunice refused to have an identity imposed on her. After graduating from Stanford in 1943, she took a job in the State Department’s Special War Problems Division before moving over to the Justice Department to head a special project on juvenile delinquency. In 1950, she went to West Virginia to be a social worker in a women’s prison, then moved to Chicago where she worked with the Juvenile Court. With all of her wealth and privilege, she could have lived a life of unconcerned luxury, but she chose to help female felons and at-risk youth instead.
She campaigned for her brother John when he ran for president in 1960 and by 1962, she was running the Kennedy family foundation. That’s when she made the world-changing decision to write a letter to the Saturday Evening Post (the 1960s version of USA Today) revealing the fact that her sister, Rosemary, was developmentally disabled. She also helped establish a network of research facilities at universities across the country, encouraged her brother to found the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development — and she pushed her brother, Ted, to write the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Through the force of her own will, she compelled the country to have a conversation about developmental disability and brought millions of Americans out of the shadows at the same time, all out of love for her sister. “I had enormous affection for Rosie,” she said. “If I [had] never met Rosemary, never known anything about handicapped children, how would I have ever found out? Because nobody accepted them anyplace.”
Her work didn’t stop when she got home, either. When a desperate mom called because no camp would take her developmentally disabled daughter, Eunice’s response was, “You don’t have to talk about it anymore. You come here a month from today. I’ll start my own camp. No charge.” And in the summer of 1962, she created Camp Shriver at the family estate in Maryland. Today, no parent anywhere in America has to wonder where their developmentally challenged kid can go to spend their summer just being a kid because thanks to “Aunt Eunice,” there are Camp Shrivers everywhere.
As a young girl, Eunice Kennedy loved sports. “I was always trying to find my brothers, not my sisters,” she said. “I wanted to play football, and I was very good. I was always the quarterback.” It was that appreciation for athletics that led her and her husband to start the Special Olympics. In the summer of 1968, just a few short weeks after her brother, Bobby, had been murdered, she opened the first national games at Soldier Field in Chicago with a thousand competitors from 26 states and Canada. The games now feature more than three million athletes in over 150 countries.
What I love about Eunice’s story is that her life’s work grew from the love she felt for her sister — and she never stopped working to improve the lives of developmentally challenged kids and their families. She taught her own children that “everybody’s normal, everybody’s the same” and she set out to pass that belief on to the rest of the world. As she said at the opening of those Chicago games, “the … Special Olympics prove a very fundamental fact. The fact that exceptional children — children with mental retardation — can be exceptional athletes, the fact that through sports they can realize their potential for growth.”
Even with her more famous brothers establishing the Peace Corps, pushing the Civil Rights Act, and fighting to reform our health care system, Eunice’s legacy may outshine them all. Because of her work, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was the only woman to appear on a U.S. coin during her lifetime, and hers was the only portrait ever commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery of someone who was never president or first lady. She set out to change the world — and she succeeded. As Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said at those games in 1968, “You know, Eunice, the world will never be the same after this.”
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider living in Santa Monica who hopes Eunice is quarterbacking a pick-up game with her brothers right now. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.