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Throngs mourn Shriver, a champion of the disabled

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / August 14, 2009

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CENTERVILLE - Before the doors opened for Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s wake, the line of mourners curled around the church entrance and stretched clear across the parking lot. Midway down, a group of adults from Cape Abilities, a service organization for people with disabilities, clutched bunches of flowers. One of them, Mike Rhodes, held a card they had all signed.

“You taught us to stand tall,” said Rhodes, 25, reading the inscription. “She did. She [stood] tall for all of us and loved us.’’

Shriver, who died Tuesday at age 88, may have done more than anyone else in history to dispel misconceptions about the mentally challenged and elevate them “into the sunlight of useful living,’’ as she once put it. And she was revered for that yesterday.

Family, friends, and those Shriver served knew her as a dynamic, visionary, and compassionate woman, one who drew on the clout of her Kennedy name and political connections to advance her cause, but was otherwise unconcerned with the trappings of celebrity.

“She completely had an absence of vanity,’’ her nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., told reporters outside Our Lady of Victory Church, in the middle of Centerville, a village in Barnstable County. Inside, several of his well-known relatives - including Shriver’s daughter, Maria, and son-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger - formed a receiving line and greeted the workaday public and the dignitaries with equal enthusiasm. Shriver’s five children took the time to express gratitude, extend sincere handshakes, and listen to the stories of all who came to pay their respects.

“She didn’t care what she was wearing, what she looked like,’’ Kennedy said. “She never did her hair. And nobody noticed because of the chaos she brought with her. She was in constant motion, constant activity, and she was one of the greatest organizers of humanity that ever lived. If she had been a man, she would have been president of the United States.”

US Representative William Delahunt would not have argued with that assessment. Shriver had one brother in the White House and two more in the Senate, but she might have been the most formidable of them all when it came to intellect, energy, and organizing ability.

“It would have been a hell of a fight,’’ Delahunt said, considering the idea of a mythical run-off between Eunice and siblings Jack, Bobby, and Ted.

Driven to serve others by her deep faith, Shriver was a communicant at Mass every morning at Our Lady of Victory during her summers on the Cape. Her casket arrived there a little after 12:30 p.m. yesterday, the hearse trailed by five family limousines and escorted by multiple police vehicles. Inside, though, there was just one uniformed officer, a member of the Wareham Police Department’s honor guard, standing watch not over the casket but a Special Olympics torch that glowed nearby.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who has been suffering from a brain tumor over the past year, went to a private family Mass at the Shriver home Tuesday, but did not attend the wake and, said a spokesman for the senator, he does not plan to go to the private funeral today at St. Xavier Church in Hyannis. His wife, Vicki Reggie Kennedy, is expected to attend. White House officials said yesterday that Vice President Joe Biden plans to be at the funeral.

Mourners were invited to kneel before the casket, which was draped with a shroud and topped with flowers and three simple name cards: Mummy, Eunie, and Grandma.

The crowd at the six-hour wake may have surpassed 1,000, though it was difficult to estimate, as people moved through the church in twos and threes after the initial rush. Mourners who had previously revered the Kennedys from afar were amazed by the access.

“Oh, it was so warm and friendly and open,’’ said Barbara Johnson, 62, of Woburn. “I shook hands with every member of that family, and they appreciated us, which was so welcoming.’’

Johnson said she came because of an affection for the Kennedys that dates to childhood and because of a particular reverence for Shriver and her work.

Shriver is well known as the founder of the Special Olympics, an organization that has grown in four decades to encompass three million athletes in 181 countries. But her work to advance social and living conditions for people with disabilities was multifaceted, reaching far beyond athletics, said Robert Johnson, president and chief executive of Special Olympics Massachusetts.

“Literally every dimension of their lives has been improved as a result of the work of Eunice Kenendy Shriver,’’ Johnson said. “Her ability to inspire others was greater than any single person’s I’ve ever met. She was intense. She was determined. She was passionate.’’

Oprah Winfrey and Governor Deval Patrick visited with the family, and in the parking lot were license plates from many states. Scores of Special Olympians passed through.

In the midafternoon, a pair of coaches from Sunshine Capers, a local Special Olympics group, waited near the edge of the parking lot for a dozen athletes to gather, so they could pass through the church together.

“They’re my life; I love them to pieces,’’ coach Kitty Sexton was saying, when one of the Sunshine Capers, Janina Aubrey, spotted her and ran over.

She clutched an envelope that she wanted to give to Shriver’s family. It contained a selection of some of her 393 medals and press clippings about her accomplishments.

Aubrey, who works through Cape Abilities on the cleaning crew at Otis Air National Guard Base, is one of several dozen from Cape Abilities who assemble beach buckets filled with snacks, maps, and tourist information for families visiting the Cape.

Everything she has accomplished stems from Shriver, directly and indirectly, her mother, Janina Finn, said.

“Without her this never would have happened,’’ said Finn, tears filling her eyes. “Eunice started all this.’’

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