America lost a hero this week.
Throughout her life Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister to President John F. Kennedy, brought her unrelenting energy and tenacity to bear on the problems of the mentally handicapped. She is best known for the founding and continual support of the Special Olympics. The passion she brought to that cause was forged early in her life.
Eunice’s older sister, Rosemary, who was born moderately retarded, was never able to keep up with the frenetic Kennedy siblings. She was “slow and plodding,” historian Laurence Leamer commented, “living among the swift and nimble.” Leamer, who wrote the excellent book, “The Kennedy Women,” said, “Rosemary had a protector in Eunice, who cared for her more deeply than any other member of the family.” According to the surviving brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Eunice made certain Rosemary had “her fair share of successes.”
Even after Rosemary’s tragic frontal lobotomy surgery, when she would pour out her frustration in fury, Eunice was the family member the caretakers called to soothe her moods. That infamous operation, insisted on by her father, Joe Kennedy, when Rosemary grew unmanageable for the nuns caring for her, was against everything Eunice held sacred. The surgery was a defining moment in Eunice’s life.
In his early political career, John F. Kennedy, was close to Eunice. They shared a house in Georgetown when he was elected to Congress. During this time, her father pulled strings to get her a job as an executive secretary in a new juvenile delinquency program. Eunice thrived at the work and would bring 15 or 20 girls home on Sunday evenings for a delicious dinner prepared by her cook. John found other things to do on those nights.
Fascinated by women criminals, Eunice went to a federal penitentiary. Living on the grounds, she met with prisoners for two months, listening to their life stories. The feisty, no-holds-barred Kennedy matched the inmates “vulgarity for vulgarity,” and got along famously. “It’s the same old story you get always in life,” she said. “I see that people are so much smarter than people think they are.”
Politically astute, Eunice was a born politician. She traveled extensively, stumping for her brother during his campaigns. After John was elected president, Eunice took her energy and her outrage over the plight of the mentally disadvantaged to her brother. She had seen a newspaper article on mental health that never once mentioned retardation. John put her to work, and Eunice was merciless in her efforts to champion the cause of mental health.
The president’s staffers made themselves scarce when she rushed in, ruthlessly arguing for the programs. Wilbur Cohen, who was assistant secretary for legislation at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and who had often borne the brunt of her forceful personality, said, “If she hadn’t nagged the hell out of Sarge Shriver and her brother, there wouldn’t be a mental retardation program.”
She married Shriver, who became the vice presidential running mate for George McGovern’s ill fated campaign of 1972.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a woman of great power, determination, and single-mindedness. Her father once said of her, “If that girl had been born with balls she would have made a hell of a politician.”
But Eunice herself once said that she would not have accomplished more had she been a man. Godspeed, Eunice.
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