It may seem ironic but it is somehow fitting: The most lasting contribution of one of the most intensely political dynastic families in American history will be an institution that transcends politics. It was started by a family member who never held or even ran for political office.
The Special Olympics, officially begun by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, offers a unique opportunity to 2.5 million athletes in 180 countries every year, and has moved untold millions more to see ability, potential and achievement where once they might have seen only disability and hopelessness.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died Tuesday at 88, was, of course, the sister of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. She was married to R. Sargent Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps and the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1972. Her daughter, Maria Shriver, is currently California’s first lady.
Old Joe Kennedy, the dynasty’s founding father, once opined that of all his children Eunice had the best political instincts, instincts she displayed in Jack’s first run for Congress in 1946 and in subsequent campaigns. But it was her deep compassion, rooted in an unshakable personal faith, that guided her toward her greatest achievements.
Her concern for mentally challenged people began in love for her older sister Rosemary, who in the 1940s was subjected to a frontal lobotomy and spent most of her life in institutions. So when the Shrivers moved to a farm in Maryland after Jack was elected president, she might have been expected to listen to the mother of a mentally challenged boy who complained that no summer camp would accept him.
“You come here a month from today,” Mrs. Shriver said. “I’ll start my own camp. No charge to go into the camp, but you have to get your kid here, and you have to come and pick your kid up.” Soon 100 young people were swimming, playing ball, riding ponies, playing tennis and kickball every summer at the Shriver estate.
Shriver learned just how physically able and enthusiastic these children could become, so the Special Olympics seemed a natural event to sponsor. She didn’t just sponsor it but jumped in with both feet, swimming, running, playing with and encouraging the children but never coddling them. She wanted to see achievement.
The Kennedys, long America’s unofficial “royal family,” achieved much in politics and are probably not finished doing so.
But Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s contributions went beyond politics, beyond ideology, to touch hearts, open minds and offer hope to millions.
She will be missed.