LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Eunice Kennedy Shriver has died. She was part of a historic American family that included her brothers, President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy. She found her own place in the family's tradition of public service by starting the Special Olympics. Over the last half century, she was a quiet champion for improving the lives of people with mental retardation. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has more.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Eunice Kennedy Shriver grew up in a family that put a lot of value in competition.
Ms. EUNICE KENNEDY SHRIVER (Founder, the Special Olympics): And I was always trying to find my brothers - not my sisters, but my brothers, because I knew they wanted to do football, and I wanted to play football. And I was very good. I was always the quarterback.
SHAPIRO: It was the Kennedy brothers - Jack, Bobby and Ted - who built an American political dynasty. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, too, was smart, politically savvy and fascinated by public policy. History professor Edward Shorter says the only thing that kept her from running for political office was the era she grew up in.
Professor EDWARD SHORTER (Professor of History, Author): Because in the 1950s, she couldn't go there. She couldn't get on that political stage. Women weren't tolerated there.
SHAPIRO: Shorter is the author of "The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation."
Prof. SHORTER: Eunice started out in Chicago in the early 1950s as a society woman. And that's the way she saw her role. But she dumped that. In fact, she was keen to dump it. She wanted to become like her brothers. She wanted to become a leader. And she was able to achieve a national leadership position in the area of developmental disabilities.
SHAPIRO: Shriver made mental retardation a cause - in large part, she said, because she was close to her older sister, Rosemary, who was born with mild retardation. At the time, to have a family member with retardation was still something to be kept secret. But when John Kennedy became president, Eunice Shriver pushed him to speak openly about the family's experience. He did, then appointed a groundbreaking presidential commission on mental retardation. He got legislation to set up important scientific research centers. Later, Eunice Shriver made her own contribution by starting the Special Olympics. It gave people with retardation a rare chance to play sports.
Ms. SHRIVER: In ancient Rome, the gladiators went into the arena with these words on their lips…
SHAPIRO: In the summer of 1968, Eunice Shriver opened the first Special Olympics in Chicago, just weeks before the violent Democratic Convention, just weeks after the assassination of her brother Bobby.
Ms. SHRIVER: Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt. Let us begin the Olympics. Thank you.
(Soundbite of applause)
SHAPIRO: What began that year has grown. Now, the world games attract athletes from 160 countries. Eunice Shriver had star power and political connections. With one phone call, she could get a meeting with senators, Cabinet secretaries, even presidents. On her 85th birthday, President George Bush held a White House dinner in her honor. Even as she grew older and frail, Shriver kept advocating for people with mental retardation on a daily basis. In an interview in 2007, University of Delaware professor Steve Idelman talked about what it was like to work with her.
Professor STEVE IDELMAN (University of Delaware): She rages at injustice. And when she thinks that people with intellectual disabilities are getting the short end of the stick, not getting things other people are getting, being discriminated against, being underestimated, it just hits that passionate civil rights fiber in her, and she becomes energized.
SHAPIRO: Shriver got strength from her Roman Catholic faith. She went to Mass every day. She was devoted to her family. She cared for her husband, Sargent Shriver, after he developed Alzheimer's disease. Daughter Maria married Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. He first ran for governor of California in 2003, and on his final campaign swing, his famous Democratic mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was at his side.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.