2006.08.20: August 20, 2006: Headlines: Directors - Shriver: The Herald-Tribune: Eunice Kennedy Shriver still going strong

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Eunice Kennedy Shriver still going strong

Eunice Kennedy Shriver still going strong

Public perception paints the Kennedy women of Shriver's generation as secondary to their famous siblings or husbands. But family lore has it that Jack -- aka John F. Kennedy -- used to joke that, had it been another era, Eunice would have been the one in the White House. Eunice Kennedy Shriver is the wife of Sargent Shriver, the first director of the U.S. Peace Corps (during the 1961-63 JFK administration), and the sister of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver still going strong

Special Olympics founder ensures a sporting chance

On the occasion of her 85th birthday in July, Eunice Kennedy Shriver got the black-tie White House dinner treatment -- specifically for the creation of the Special Olympics.

At the dinner for about 130 people, President Bush lauded Shriver's creation of the organization. "If you ever had any doubt about how much good one person can do," he said, "look no further than this kind and gracious lady."

That morning, Shriver had played soccer with a bunch of kids in her backyard in 80-degree heat.

Yes, she had a minor stroke last year and there is a wheelchair in the foyer of her house -- but the only ones using it now are her grandchildren, who like to take it for a spin around the first floor. She's got a volleyball net out back, a kickball field and a makeshift basketball court set up on her private tennis courts. This is all part of "Camp Shriver" -- the one-week sports camp for the intellectually disabled that Shriver likes to run on her exceedingly large lawn in suburban Potomac, Md.

The staff includes college and high school students, Shriver herself (she's partial to getting into the pool for swim instruction and joining the soccer matches) and her grandkids, who are expected to be up and out early and running laps like everyone else. There are no ifs, ands or buts when it comes to Grandma.

Public perception paints the Kennedy women of Shriver's generation as secondary to their famous siblings or husbands. But family lore has it that Jack -- aka John F. Kennedy -- used to joke that, had it been another era, Eunice would have been the one in the White House.

And, in her own way, she has been.

The Shriver home feels like a Kennedy family museum. The walls, the tables, the hallways are covered in photographs and memorabilia of American political royalty. The photos include her own family snapshots: Shriver with her husband, Sargent; their five children, Bobby, Maria, Tim, Mark and Anthony; and 16 grandchildren.

There's a newspaper from the day Maria's husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was elected governor of California; a copy of her brother Jack's inaugural address and a framed portrait from his swearing-in, titled "Camelot at First Moment," and a painting of her brother Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., in uniform, before he died in World War II.

There are pictures of Shriver with nearly every president since Lyndon Johnson and with Nelson Mandela in Africa. There is a snapshot of her with her beloved sister, Rosemary, three years her elder, whose struggle with mental disabilities inspired Eunice's work.

Among the commendations and letters citing a lifetime of public service, on a shelf next to the mantel, are his-and-hers Presidential Medals of Freedom -- Eunice's awarded in 1984, a decade before the one for her celebrated husband, who founded the Peace Corps and created Head Start to aid in early childhood education.

"People are always coming up to me asking about the Peace Corps, and Head Start, and Uncle Jack and Uncle Bobby," Maria Shriver says. "But in equal numbers, they're asking about Special Olympics. And that's all about Mummy."

And "Mummy," who has been critically ill twice in the past decade, is unwilling to stop. The Special Olympics, which she founded nearly 40 years ago, is now the world's largest sports program, serving 2.25 million people with intellectual disabilities in more than 150 countries. Her capacity to cajole and inspire is "unlimited. This is a worldwide movement that started in a backyard. That says it all," says Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. And she's after him for something, too.

"So Teddy called me this morning," she announces, settled in her living room with son Tim beside her. It is three days before her birthday, and Shriver has agreed to a rare interview, at her home. She proceeds to recount her conversation, giving her little brother a melodramatic woe-is-me voice and herself her usual matter-of-fact one.

"Oh, I'm so exhausted!" she says, playing Teddy.

"What's the matter with you? It's only 8 in the morning!" she demands to know from him.

"Oh, I'm soooo tired," she says, mimicking him. "And now I have to go to a camp for you. In Boston! Why am I going to camp? What's all this about camp? Special Olympics, Special Olympics, Special Olympics! All these things I have to do for you!"

Tim Shriver bursts into laughter. He knows exactly what's coming.

"I don't want to hear another yip out of you!" he crows, seconds before his mother says it. They've arranged for five other Camp Shrivers this year around the country -- one in Teddy's home state -- and she will hear no carping about any of it, even in jest.

The senior senator from Massachusetts later will stress he is very happy to do this, of course. He will say her morning soccer romp "doesn't surprise me. If she didn't win, that would surprise me."

Shriver graduated from Stanford University with a sociology degree and wanted to be a social worker. She had no grand, global vision for helping the mentally retarded; she was just plenty mad.

"I was out there at my house and two women called me and up and said (officials) were not letting their children participate in the city programs for the summer," Shriver recalls, explaining how the original Camp Shriver came about 44 years ago. "Then someone else called me and said they wouldn't take her daughter, because she had Down syndrome. And that was it; I got cross. I got very, very cross."

She's angry just at the memory of it, but then she looks up and immediately dissolves into a smile. Her husband of 53 years, who has Alzheimer's disease, has just come into the room.

"Hi, Sarge, how are you?"

"How are you, darling," he replies, taking her hand and bending down to give it a kiss.

"You got up bright and early this morning," she says, softly touching his arm. "Would you like to sit down over there, Sarge?"

Asked why she discontinued the original Camp Shriver program in 1970, she admits that the demands on her life as wife and sister to such prominent public men played a role.

"I got very busy doing other things, with my husband, with my family," she says. "But then things simmered down finally and I was ready to go again."

The fifth of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children, Shriver has been through a lifetime of public triumph and public pain with her family. She lost her oldest brother in the war; big sister Kathleen, in a plane crash. She lost two brothers to assassinations and has witnessed Teddy's ups and downs. Rosemary, who died last year, influenced her the most: They were athletic partners in childhood, and Eunice would watch her struggle with her disabilities, be subjected to a lobotomy by order of their father and spend much of her adult life institutionalized, a period Eunice describes as "when Rosemary went to Wisconsin."

"I think my mother's relationship with Rosemary was an enormously powerful motivator," Tim Shriver, who chairs the Special Olympics Board, says in a separate interview. "I think she saw firsthand that Rosemary was being told no, being rejected from emotional and social settings. She saw her father struggle with the fact that Rosemary couldn't compete at the same level. You can't look at your sister and see her suffering and not want to do something."

Eunice Shriver describes how much it hurts a child to be the only one on the sidelines while everyone else plays soccer -- left out because of an issue that is mental, not physical. "Do you know what that's like for a child?" she says. "What do you do when you're 8 years old and you sit down at the lunch table and no one will sit with you because you're 'retarded'?" Her children spent several years of their childhood working at Camp Shriver and now send their own kids to participate in the camp.

"People forget what it was like when she started," Maria Shriver says. "There were no options but an institution. ... My kids have no clue that before their grandmother's work, something like that wouldn't be possible."

All the Shriver children gathered for a private birthday celebration before the big White House event on the official birthday. Guests at the White House included Barbara Walters, Tim Russert, Vanessa Williams, Olympian Scott Hamilton and a dozen Special Olympians.

The president was upstaged by his special guest, who thanked him for supporting her causes and broke up the room by adding, "And, in addition to all of that, you have managed to control Teddy -- at least some of the time." At his table, the senator waved his white napkin in surrender.

Shriver also made special note of her sister. "Tonight," she said, "Rosemary is in heaven and I miss her."

When this story was posted in August 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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