Friday, August 14, 2009

a champion worth remembering.

Say what you like about the Kennedys - they've been called everything from American royalty to murderers - but the upside of their legacy for America can't be denied.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver - sister of JFK, Bobby and Ted, and mother of California first lady Maria [pictured above with her mother a few years ago] - died Tuesday at the age of 88, leaving behind her husband, five children, 19 grandchildren, her brother Ted and her sister Jean. And the Special Olympics.

Eunice was a social worker, activist and celebrity - all roles she played to the hilt to help transform our country's view of the intellectually disabled from institutionalized freaks to friends, neighbors and athletes.

Or, for Eunice, sister. Her older sister, Rosemary, was mentally retarded, underwent a lobotomy at 23, and spent the remainder of her life in an institution. She died just four years ago at age 86. Rosemary was somewhat of a Kennedy family secret until Eunice revealed her condition to the nation in a 1962 article she wrote for the Saturday Evening Post.

In 1968, Eunice organized the first Special Olympics. Held in Chicago, the two-day event drew more than 1,000 participants from 26 states and Canada. Today, Special Olympics is the world's largest athletic competition for mentally disabled children and adults, with more than 1 million athletes from over 160 countries participating each year.

Commonly regarded as the most intellectual and politically minded of the Kennedy women, Eunice also worked to help solve the growing problem of juvenile delinquency. She began her career as a social worker at a West Virginia women's prison, worked with Chicago's juvenile court and led the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation (named for her oldest brother, killed in combat during WWII), created to improve treatment of the mentally disabled.

Eunice was born the fifth of nine children to Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. She married R. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, head of LBJ's War on Poverty, George McGovern's vice-presidential running mate in 1972 and a presidential contender four years later. Sargent was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease six years ago.

Together, the couple had five children: Maria Shriver, wife of California Governor Arnold Schwarznegger; Robert, a Santa Monica city council member; Timothy, who chairs the Special Olympics; Mark, a Save the Children executive; and Anthony, founder and chair of Best Buddies International, a volunteer organization for the mentally disabled.

Talk about a lasting legacy. Though almost all of the first-generation Kennedy children are gone - U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, 77, is suffering from brain cancer; Jean appears to be healthy at 81 - the second generation seems to be carrying forth with the credo so deeply held by their grandparents: Much is expected of those to whom much has been given.

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