Eunice Kennedy Shriver 

(1921 - 2009)

Image of Eunice Kennedy Shriver  from the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame program.

 

Eunice Kennedy Shriver has dedicated her life to helping those with special needs. It is difficult to recall today the life that the mentally retarded faced in the generation before Mrs. Shriver’s lifetime of work. Eunice Kennedy Shriver has helped to change the way the world views the mentally retarded and those with other disabilities and in turn, how the world treats them. 

In 1957, Mrs. Shriver became the director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Established in 1946 as a memorial to her eldest brother who died in WWII, the foundation was created to serve two main objectives: to prevent mental retardation by helping to identify its causes, and to improve the ways in which society deals with people who have mental retardation. She traveled the nation talking to the small number of experts willing to buck the “forget-em” philosophy and visiting the notorious facilities that housed most of the retarded Americans. With respect  to this, Mrs. Shriver was quoted as saying; “There was a complete lack of interest in them [the mentally retarded] and lack of knowledge about their capacities. They were isolated because their families were embarrassed and the public was prejudiced.” 

Shortly after her brother, John F. Kennedy, was elected President, Mrs. Shriver began her crusade for the rights of and respect for the mentally retarded. Her courage and determination to reveal one of the Kennedy family’s most closely guarded secrets that Rosemary, her sister and most significantly, the President’s sister, was retarded proved to be her most lasting effect. Mrs. Shriver convinced her family to let her go public with the story of her mentally retarded sister. In September, 1962, she wrote an article about Rosemary, which was published in the Saturday Evening Post. Some call the article one of the most important contribution the Kennedy’s made to the nation.

In 1961, Mrs. Shriver helped to establish the Presidential Committee on Mental Retardation. The following year, she developed the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and created the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Awards in Mental Retardation. Her most celebrated accomplishment was in 1968, when she established the Special Olympics as the first systematic effort to provide sports training and athletic 
competition for individuals with mental retardation. Nearly one million athletes in 130 countries now compete worldwide in 22 sports. More than 15,000 games, meets and tournaments are held annually.

In 1981, Mrs. Shriver created the Community of Caring concept to empower people to be responsible and caring members of a community. As part of the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation, 16 Community of Caring model centers and 450 Community of Caring Programs in public and private schools have been developed.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver has received many awards for her outstanding service to those with mental retardation, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Legion of Honor, the Priz de la Couronne Francais, the Mary Laskar Award, the Phillip Murray-William Green Award, the AAMD Humanitarian Award, the NRPAS National Volunteer Service Award, the Laetare Medal of the University of Notre Dame, and the Order of the Smile of Polish Children. She has also received ten honorary degrees.

On March 24, 1984, when President Reagan awarded Mrs. Shriver the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, for work on behalf of persons with mental retardation, he had this to say:

“With enormous conviction and unrelenting effort, Eunice Kennedy Shriver has labored on behalf of America’s least powerful people, those with mental retardation. Over the last two decades, she has been at the forefront of numerous initiatives on behalf of the mentally retarded, from creating day camps, to establishing research centers, to the founding of the Special Olympics Program. Her decency and goodness has touched the lives of many, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver deserves America’s praise, gratitude and love.” 

Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2002.
 

© Copyright Maryland State Archives, 2001