The Shy Kennedy
The Daily Beast curates the most fascinating details of Eunice Kennedy Shriver's life—from her early days playing football with brothers John and Bobby to the "high-octane fervor" she brought to founding the Special Olympics. Read about how Shriver developed her behind-the-scenes niche in a family that was forever in the spotlight.
•Shriver grew up the fifth child of nine in a famous family. She played quarterback in football games with her brothers and always loved sports, which would later lead her to found the Special Olympics in 1968, right after the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
•Eunice’s family thought she had presidential potential. “Let's face it," Ethel Kennedy said, "she would have made the best president of the United States." Meanwhile, Eunice’s father reportedly said: “If that girl had been born with balls, she would have been a hell of a politician.” Shriver instead used her famous maiden name to win the support of celebrities and big-name politicians for the Special Olympics.
•In 1962, an exhausted mother called Shriver on the phone to ask what she should do with her intellectually disabled child because no summer camp would accept him. Shriver told the woman to bring the child to her home. "I said, 'You don't have to talk about it anymore. You come here a month from today. 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.' [I] said, 'Thanks very much,' and I hung up the phone." Shriver ran the summer camp at no charge at Timberlawn, the family estate in Maryland. President Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara were among the camp’s notable visitors.
•Kennedy's relationship with her older sister, Rosemary, who suffered from mild intellectual disability and later had a lobotomy, gave her firsthand experience with people with special needs. “Certainly, if you have a sister who learns slowly, you are obviously aware of certain things—insights that you wouldn't have if you never had a sister who is slow to learn,” she told The Washington Post in 1987. “But, would I have gone into this for her, and do I run around for her? No." Shriver worked as a social worker after graduating from Stanford and before taking over a family charity, the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, in 1957, which was devoted to issues of intellectual disabilities.
•Shriver’s longtime friend Donald Dell described shy Shriver’s "old coffee trick" in a profile of Eunice from 1987. “At the conclusion of dinner, Shriver announces that coffee will be served in the living room. The guests file in, the maid serves the coffee, and everyone asks ‘Where's Eunice?’ Eunice, of course, has gone up to bed.”
•Shriver’s husband, Robert Sargent Shriver Jr., was the Peace Corps director and George McGovern’s running mate. He also served as U.S. ambassador to France. Their daughter Maria is married to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and played a key role in getting him elected.
•Shriver lived with a “high-octane fervor,” according to friends. "Sure," friend Ann Buchwald told The Washington Post. "She's very bossy. Very determined. Hurries. And drops things. And says only the important things. Talks only to the important people. And why not? She has only a limited energy. If she could put 13 more hours into the day, she would. Meanwhile, she wastes not a minute."
•“Part of her genius [has] always been to create things that are appealing, create opportunities that are joyful that people want to join, that make things fun,” Eunice’s son Tim Shriver once told NPR.
•Shriver joked that her young children suffered from her wandering attention while she was running summer camp. "Talk to Timmy," she told NPR. "[He'll] tell you horror stories about how they were left in the house and [had] nobody to play with because [I] was out teaching swimming."
•The Special Olympics began with 1,000 people and now encompasses 2.25 million athletes and their families in more than 150 countries aided by 500,000 volunteers and coaches—the world’s largest sports program. Shriver stepped down as its head in 1990.
•Shriver once compared mentally challenged people to the misunderstood movie legend E.T. “ E.T. I just loved E.T., didn't you?" she said. "After I saw it, I wrote to Steven Spielberg—to see if he would do a [television] spot for Special Olympics. Because, I thought E.T.—you know, that's how the children are sometimes ignored. Hidden. People are ashamed of them."
•Shriver is the only woman to have had her face appear on a U.S. coin during her lifetime. She was on the 1995 Special Olympics commemorative silver dollar.
•Shriver was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan. "With enormous conviction and unrelenting effort," Reagan said, "Eunice Kennedy Shriver has labored on behalf of America's least powerful people…her decency and goodness have touched the lives of many."
•Though Shriver had suffered from strokes in recent years, she made a speech in 2007 that suggested she was nowhere near retiring from the cause. "We've got to be so proud of what our special friends do and their future," she said. "Their possibility of really bringing to the world something that really resembles peace and hope and faith and love, that's what they can do. And we're so proud of them. And we want to keep going all the time, the next 20 years. I'm going. You come with me?"
•Shriver, much unlike her father, lived "almost ascetically," according to Edward Shorter's book about the Kennedy family. Two of her children, Anthony and Bobby, thought their family was poor when they were younger because of the household's austerity.
Eunice and her little brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, could be seen driving a golf cart around together in Hyannis Port on days when the senator was feeling strong enough this past year. They toasted her 88th birthday together.