Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the younger sister of the late President John F. Kennedy who founded the Special Olympics and promoted it to the very depths of her soul, has died at 88.
As someone who used to write obituaries as part of my stint as a staff reporter on two newspapers (the old Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas and the San Diego Union in San Diego, CA) I know full well the “boilerplate” obits that are run — obits that are in many cases written way in advance and ready to go the minute a famous person dies. But Shriver was truly a special person who had a passion for making things better for people who society igored or had improperly typedcast. So perhaps the best way to ponder what she did with her often sad time on earth when she lost two of her beloved brothers to assassins’ bullets is to run in full this statement in the Boston Globe from the Special Olympics, a statement written by her son who is the Special Olympics’ CEO:
Dear Special Olympics Family,
It is with a heavy heart that I write to let you know that my mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, passed away early this morning.
At the time of her death — as it was throughout her long and full life — she was surrounded by her family, her husband, her children, her grandchildren and those who loved her.
Though at the end her body had become weak, her heart was strong and it was abundantly full. It was overflowing with faith in God’s will. It was replete with a sense of contentment about the past and a deep hope for the future. It was full of love and gratitude for those to whom she had dedicated her life’s work and who had in return given her life the gifts of clarity, aspiration and friendship.
Her heart was full indeed of faith, hope and love. She was very much at peace.
As I write to you, her extended family of the Special Olympics movement that she loved so deeply, it is hard not to recognize that these same traits that sustained her at the time of her death had fulfilled and motivated her throughout her lifetime of advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities — or as she always said, her “special friends.”
Her faith in the athletes of Special Olympics was unfailing, even from the very start. When she was young and Special Olympics was still just an idea, few people particularly cared or knew about people with intellectual disabilities. Fewer still shared or understood her dream to awaken the spirit and denied potential of this forgotten population. And yet, though others could not see, she still believed, conceiving Special Olympics in her heart before she could unveil it on the field of play.
She believed that people with intellectual disabilities could — individually and collectively — achieve more than anyone thought possible. This much she knew with unbridled faith and certainty. And this faith in turn gave her hope that their future might be radically different.
Her faith in them allowed her to hope for an army of supporters – coaches, volunteers, donors, fans – that would emerge and grow and become the foundation upon which a worldwide human rights movement would be built. It allowed her to envision a world of formerly skeptical people who would witness the accomplishments of our athletes and say “Yes! I understand!” Hope allowed her to see the invisible, fight for the isolated and achieve the impossible.
But mostly, it was her unconditional love for the athletes of Special Olympics that so fulfilled her life. As Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and social activist reminded us: “the beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image, lest we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
Her love for the athletes of Special Olympics was always just like that. She never hoped that people with intellectual disabilities should be somehow changed into something they were not. Rather, she fought throughout her life to ensure that they would be allowed to reach their full potential so that we might in turn be changed by them, forced to recognize our own false assumptions and their inherent gifts.
She fought the good fight, she kept the faith, and though she knew the race for equality was not finished, she knew that the army of supporters she had hoped for long ago had become a reality that would carry and someday complete her vision. On her behalf, as we prepare to say our last goodbyes, my family and I thank you for your shared commitment to that dream.
My family and I would be proud and honored if you would take some time to learn more about her life, share your own remembrances about her, and read the remembrances of others at a website that was recently established to honor her legacy, www.EuniceKennedyShriver.org. In the spirit of her hope that everyone would share in the power of Special Olympics, I hope you’ll not only read and contribute to the site, but share it with friends.
With great appreciation,
Timothy P. Shriver
Chairman & CEO
There are deaths and there are deaths and obits have a formula. But this says it all.
OBITS OF RELATED INTEREST:
And this bio, also via The Boston Globe:
New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica, in a column written as she lay gravely ill, wrote this, in part:
But she has led a great American life. Maybe if she had come along later in America, she would have been the first Kennedy woman running for President.
….She was another Kennedy who didn’t sit things out, sit back and wait for returns from trust funds and investments, decided to live a life of service, and purpose. Did something more than contribute to the general lousiness. In her own way, she fought for people unable to fight for themselves the way her brothers did.
“These were never lives to be ignored, or ashamed of,” she said to me once. “They were always lives worth knowing about.”
With her, the language was always as important as the vision, and the ideals. You learn the language around the Special Olympics fast, trust me on that. It was never “mentally retarded people” or “mentally disabled people” or finally “intellectually disabled people.” It is never the adjectives. It is a person WITH intellectual disabilities. Always, in Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s special world, you spoke of the person first.
It started with that day camp in the backyard of her then-home in Maryland. Then Anne McGlone Burke, a phys ed teacher from Chicago, suggested a competition modeled after the Olympics. Eunice Shriver backed the idea with money, and with the force and weight of the Kennedy name.
There are bigger Kennedy names, of course, part of the history of the country and the world. Know about hers today. In her own way, Mrs. S. did exactly what her brothers set out to do. She changed the world.
And here is her talking about her life and legacy at the Kennedy Library in 2007 (turn up your volume all the way on this):
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Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.