- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Years before she organized the first Special Olympics in 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver hosted annual summer games for local children with mental disabilities in the backyard of her Rockville, Md., home.

“It was pretty simple and a heck of a lot of fun,” said Tom Songster, retired Special Olympics vice president of special projects and special adviser to Mrs. Shriver. “Her intensity was no greater or less, probably, when she passed as it was in those [early] days.”

Mrs. Shriver, who transformed “Camp Shriver” into an international event, died early Tuesday at Cape Cod Hospital in Massachusetts. The 88-year-old sister of former President John F. Kennedy and a Potomac, Md., resident was surrounded by her husband, former Ambassador Sargent Shriver; her five children, including Maria Shriver; Maria Shriver’s husband, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; and 19 grandchildren when she died at the hospital near the Kennedy family compound.

“She was the light of our lives, a mother, wife, grandmother, sister and aunt who taught us by example and with passion what it means to live a faith-driven life of love and service to others,” the family said in a statement.

A longtime advocate of the rights of the mentally disabled, Mrs. Shriver has been credited with significantly increasing through the Special Olympics the public’s awareness and understanding of those previously left on the sidelines. The games include the World Special Olympics, attended by thousands of athletes around the world every two years, and annual events held in more than 150 countries.

President Obama said Mrs. Shriver will be remembered as “a champion for people with intellectual disabilities.”

“Her leadership greatly enriched the lives of Special Olympians throughout the world, who have experienced the pride and joy of competition and achievement thanks to her vision,” the president said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Sargent, their children Robert, Maria, Timothy, Mark and Anthony, and the entire Kennedy family.”

Mrs. Shriver’s backyard summer camps were so successful that by 1968 she organized the first Special Olympics games, in Chicago. The event was attended by 1,000 athletes from 26 U.S. states and Canada, who competed in track and field, floor hockey and swimming.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, her sole surviving brother, who has been battling a brain tumor, said the “seeds of compassion and hope she planted decades ago” in her backyard camp were inspired by the struggles of her mentally disabled sister, Rosemary.

“Over the years, she grew those seeds into a worldwide movement that has given persons with disabilities everywhere the opportunity to lead more productive and fulfilling lives,” Mr. Kennedy said. “We would never have had an Americans with Disabilities Act without her.”

Mrs. Shrivers’ friends and associates described her as a kind but extremely dedicated, tough and no-nonsense person who would do almost anything to advance the cause of the mentally disabled.

Monsignor John J. Enzler of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament said Mrs. Shriver never was afraid to ask a tough question - even to a priest.

“She was always sharp, always bright, but she was also very anxious to engage you in discussions in things that were important to her,” said Monsignor Enzler, who was her longtime pastor when he served at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac.

“Anybody who knows her knows she was a tough lady - she wasn’t mean but she was strong-willed. If something wasn’t right, she would call you up and tell you so.”

Mr. Songster said Mrs. Shriver was always “very thoughtful about making sure she got the facts.”

“She didn’t do this off her cuff …,” he said. “She was always determined to get right to the point, forget the fluff. What’s the question? Here’s the answer.”

“It was wonderful to work for her because very often you may have bosses that don’t know exactly what they are doing, and in Mrs. Shriver’s case she almost always knew all of the time what you were doing, or what you were supposed to be doing,” he added.

Mrs. Shriver was anything but a figurehead leader, said Mr. Songster, who routinely got late-night calls from her about Special Olympics matters.

“I’ll miss those calls,” he said. “It was very interesting how she always kept in touch with people she thought could be helpful; she never let them get too far away from her.”

Mrs. Shriver used her extraordinary connections among Washington politicians and power brokers to develop the Special Olympics into a global event.

“There were times when I’m sure people would think, especially in the early days, ‘Oh she’s just doing this for politics,’” Mr. Songster said. “Mrs. Shriver couldn’t give two shakes about that when it came to the Special Olympics.”

Although Mrs. Shriver officially retired from Special Olympics in the mid-1990s, she still worked full days from the office several days a week, Mr. Songster said.

“If there was a big decision to be made, people always checked with her before they made it,” he said.

Monsignor Enzler credited Mrs. Shriver’s faith in God and Catholicism for giving her the strength to continue her work well into her 80s.

“She went to church every day - her faith was a big part of who she is,” said the monsignor.

Mr. Kennedy said his earliest memory of her sister is of a girl with “great humor, sharp wit and a boundless passion to make a difference.”

“She understood deeply the lesson our mother and father taught us: Much is expected of those to whom much has been given,” he said. “Throughout her extraordinary life, she touched the lives of millions, and for Eunice that was never enough.”

Mrs. Shriver was born in Brookline, Mass., the fifth of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. After earning a sociology degree from Stanford University in 1943 she worked as a social worker at a women’s prison in Alderson, W.Va., and with the juvenile court in Chicago in the 1950s before taking over the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation with the goal of improving the treatment of the mentally disabled.

The foundation was named for her eldest brother, Joseph Jr., who was killed in World War II.

In 1953, she married Mr. Shriver, who became President Kennedy’s first director of the Peace Corps. Mr. Shriver also was Democrat George McGovern’s vice-presidential running mate in 1972 and ran for president himself briefly in 1976.

Survivors include her husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2003, and the couple’s five children: Maria Shriver; Robert, a city councilman in Santa Monica, Calif.; Timothy, chairman of Special Olympics; Mark, an executive at the charity Save the Children; and Anthony, founder and chairman of Best Buddies International, a volunteer organization for the mentally disabled.

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