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Eunice Kennedy Shriver, 88; member of Kennedy clan, founder of Special Olympics

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / August 11, 2009

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Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who planted the seeds for the Special Olympics when she launched Camp Shriver on the lawn of her Maryland home, and then with force of will and the clout of her family name spread her vision of lifting the developmentally disabled "into the sunlight of useful living," died this morning.

Mrs. Shriver was 88. She had suffered a series of strokes in recent years and died at 2 a.m. at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, her family said in a statement.

"Inspired by her love of God, her devotion to her family, and her relentless belief in the dignity and worth of every human life, she worked without ceasing -- searching, pushing, demanding, hoping for change," the family statement said. "She was a living prayer, a living advocate, a living center of power. She set out to change the world and to change us, and she did that and more."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy remembered his sister as a "young girl with great humor, sharp wit, and a boundless passion to make a difference."

"She understood deeply the lesson our mother and father taught us -- much is expected of those to whom much has been given," Kennedy said in a statement. "Throughout her extraordinary life, she touched the lives of millions, and for Eunice that was never enough."

When Mrs. Shriver founded the Special Olympics in 1968, holding its inaugural Summer Games at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the 1,000 athletes outnumbered spectators more than 10 to 1. By its 40th anniversary last year, 3 million athletes in 181 countries competed in Special Olympics contests and uncounted millions more gathered to watch, cheer, and encourage.

"She believed that people with intellectual disabilities could -- individually and collectively -- achieve more than anyone thought possible," her son, Timothy P. Shriver, chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics, said in a statement. "This much she knew with unbridled faith and certainty. And this faith in turn gave her hope that their future might be radically different."

The middle child of nine in a clan embraced as America’s royalty, Mrs. Shriver counted among her siblings US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat whose storied political tenure is being curtailed by illness, and the slain symbols of ’60s hope, President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. Her husband, Sargent Shriver, was the first director of the Peace Corps, a US ambassador to France, and a vice presidential candidate.

In the competitive household of her youth, she established herself as the most intellectually gifted of the sisters in a family where the patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., decided that his sons were the ones bound for politics.

Within the constraints of her era, gender, and social strata, she was the most ambitious, too, becoming an international leader more than a half century ago in the burgeoning movement to wrest mental retardation from the shadows of hushed conversations.

A younger sister of Rosemary Kennedy, who was developmentally disabled and institutionalized most of her life, Mrs. Shriver dedicated decades to ensuring that other families would not endure the fate of her own, watching a loved one whisked behind closed doors. In an attempt to alleviate Rosemary’s intellectual disabilities, doctors performed a lobotomy that instead left her in need of constant care.

Taking her sister as inspiration, Mrs. Shriver began directing the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation in 1957. Named for the oldest of the Kennedy children, who was killed in World War II, the foundation works to improve the lives of those with intellectual disabilities and to prevent mental retardation by identifying its causes.

After her older brother John was elected president, Mrs. Shriver worked with him to create a presidential committee on retardation in 1961. Her many other efforts included creating, in 1981, the ‘‘Community of Caring’’ programs in schools to reduce the potential for intellectual disabilities among the babies of teenage mothers. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, a research facility in Waltham, was named for her.

‘‘With enormous conviction and unrelenting effort, Eunice Kennedy Shriver has labored on behalf of America’s least powerful people, the mentally retarded,’’ Ronald Reagan said in 1984 when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. ‘‘Her decency and goodness have touched the lives of many, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver deserves America’s praise, gratitude, and love.’’

The third daughter of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald, Eunice Kennedy was born in Brookline on July 10, 1921. She also spent parts of her youth in Bronxville, N.Y., Palm Beach, Fla., and London, where her father was ambassador to England.

As a girl, she was the sibling who formed the closest relationship with Rosemary. Through the years, Mrs. Shriver visited her often. After Rose Kennedy suffered a stroke in 1984, Mrs. Shriver began overseeing Rosemary’s care at St. Coletta, a facility in Wisconsin.

‘‘Eunice was born mature, and because she was so close to Rosemary a special sense of responsibility developed within her,’’ Rose Kennedy once said in an interview, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography ‘‘The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.’’

With her high cheekbones and thick copper hair, Mrs. Shriver bore resemblance to her brother Jack. Newspapers sometimes called her the Katharine Hepburn of the Kennedy sisters. She attended convent schools in Connecticut and London before entering Manhattanville College in New York, and then left for Stanford University in California, graduating in 1943 with a bachelor’s in sociology.

Because she was a Kennedy, newspapers chronicled the minutia of her life. When she was a teenager, the Globe ran a short story in 1939 detailing preparations for her birthday party in London; The New York Times devoted three paragraphs in 1963 to informing the world she was pregnant with her fourth child.

With her work, however, Mrs. Shriver left behind as much as possible the trappings of privilege. She plunged into jobs that included heading a juvenile delinquency project for the US Justice Department and spending time as a social worker at a federal penitentiary for women in Alderson, W.Va.

At a dinner party, her sister Kathleen introduced her to Robert Sargent Shriver Jr., who was part of a wealthy Catholic family in Maryland. They married in 1953 in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with Cardinal Francis Spellman officiating.

Initially making Chicago their base and settling in a duplex on the Lake Michigan shore, the Shrivers uprooted after John F. Kennedy was elected president, and they moved outside Washington to a Rockville, Md., estate they called Timberlawn.

Determined in her efforts to help the developmentally disabled, Mrs. Shriver wanted just as much to move the mountain of public opinion.

‘‘My sister, Rosemary, is retarded,’’ she wrote in Parade magazine in February 1964. ‘‘But I cannot help her with pity — or serve with sorrow the 5 1/2 million others like her. Only by facing the facts and resolving to meet the challenge head-on can something be done. Only if we broaden our understanding can we help the mentally retarded to escape into the sunlight of useful living.’’

In 1966, she received the Lasker Public Service Award, and in a profile that year for the New York Post, then-journalist and now filmmaker Nora Ephron captured Mrs. Shriver in a pair of adjective-laden sentences:

‘‘Eunice Shriver is all the things that Kennedy women are — long, lean, athletic, toothy, pearl-necklaced, prolific, clannish, energetic. She is also a few things that Kennedy women are not — intellectual, witty, and committed in a whole, social sense that none of her sisters or sisters-in-law can match.’’

Nine years later, political columnist George F. Will weighed in with observations of his own:

‘‘Mrs. Shriver is one of those ladies with whims of iron, and the Special Olympics is no mere whim.... Armies on the march are no match for Mrs. Shriver’s ideas, in part because she turns her ideas into armies.’’

In recent years, breathless news stories chronicling the parties and pregnancies of youth and marriage have given way to dispatches detailing the infirmities of age. In the past decade, she has suffered illnesses, injuries, and hospitalizations, and her husband suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. With her death, only two Kennedy siblings, the senator and Jean Kennedy Smith, remain from the storied clan.

Even in her 80s, awards and honorary degrees continued to steadily arrive for Mrs. Shriver. Three years ago, Pope Benedict XVI named her a dame of the Order of St. Gregory in recognition of her public service.

Her name carried clout in Washington, too. US Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who often reaches across the political divide to work with Edward Kennedy on healthcare bills, has called Mrs. Shriver ‘‘the nicest person in the whole family,’’ someone deserving of sainthood.

Whenever the two senators hit an impasse because of their different perspectives, Hatch would threaten to call Mrs. Shriver, a tactic he said always worked.

‘‘I would say, ‘Teddy, I’m going to see Eunice.’ He’d say, ‘Oh, don’t do that!’ He knows Eunice likes me. She’d get all, ‘Why are you being mean to that young senator?’’’ Hatch, who is 75, recalled in an interview last year. ‘‘He’d say, ‘Don’t! We’ll work it out’ When I was willing to call Eunice, I was serious.’’

Through the years, relatives inevitably helped define her public image — first her powerful father, then her politician brothers, her daughter, Maria, a former television news anchor, and her son-in-law, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. But ultimately, Mrs. Shriver’s legacy remains etched in her deeds — and in the photos of her playing touch football barefoot in a dress, welcoming developmentally disabled children to the US embassy in France, and opening numerous events for the Special Olympics.

‘‘When she takes an interest in the problems of mentally retarded children ... she does not give ‘pink teas’ or stage society dances with social friends to raise money,’’ Sargent Shriver wrote of his wife in the Globe on Oct. 15, 1972. ‘‘Instead, she plays with the children themselves; she works with them; she visits their houses; she starts camps for them and then works in the camps herself."

Arrangements for a memorial service had not been completed.

Susan Milligan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.