Going the Distance

Going the Distance

Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver Gives Everyone a Sporting Chance

By Jennifer Frey

Washington Post Staff Writer

Last night, Eunice Kennedy Shriver got the black-tie White House dinner treatment -- specifically for the creation of Special Olympics -- on the occasion of her 85th birthday.

At the dinner for about 130 people, President Bush lauded Shriver's creation of the organization. "If you ever had any doubt about how much good one person can do," he said, "look no further than this kind and gracious lady."

Yesterday morning, Shriver played soccer with a bunch of kids in her back yard in 80-degree heat.

Yes, she had a minor stroke last year and there is a wheelchair in the foyer of her house -- but the only ones using it now are her grandchildren, who like to take it for a spin around the first floor (and occasionally out the front door). She's got a volleyball net out back, a kickball field, a makeshift basketball court set up on her private tennis courts. This is all a part of "Camp Shriver" -- the one-week sports camp for the intellectually disabled that Shriver likes to run on her exceedingly large lawn in Potomac. The staff includes college and high school students from all over the area, but also Shriver herself (she's partial to getting into the pool for swim instruction and joining the soccer matches) and her grandkids, who are expected to be up and out early and running laps like everyone else. There are no ifs, ands or buts when it comes to Grandma.

"I'm going to give a speech at the White House tonight," Shriver says to the 40-plus kids from this area as they gather for the camp's opening day, "and it's going to be about you!"

Public perception paints the Kennedy women of Shriver's generation as being secondary to their famous siblings or husbands. But family lore has it that Jack -- aka John F. Kennedy -- used to joke that, had it been another era, Eunice would have been the one to make it to the White House.

And, in her own way, she has.

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The Shriver home on River Road feels like a Kennedy family museum. The walls, the tables, the hallways are covered in photographs and memorabilia of American political royalty. Their own family snapshots -- Shriver with her husband, Sargent, and their five children -- Bobby, Maria, Tim, Mark and Anthony -- and 16 grandchildren. Candid photographs of her famous brothers.

The newspaper from the day Maria's husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was elected governor of California; a copy of her brother Jack's inaugural address and a framed portrait from his swearing-in, titled "Camelot at First Moment" and letters he wrote to their parents from boarding school. And a painting of her brother, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., in uniform, before he died in World War II.

Mixed in with all these items of historical import are pictures of Shriver with nearly every president since Lyndon Johnson and with Nelson Mandela in Africa. There is a snapshot of her with her beloved sister, Rosemary, three years her elder, whose struggle with mental disabilities inspired Eunice's work.

Among the commendations and letters citing a lifetime of public service, on a shelf next to the mantel, are his-and-hers Presidential Medals of Freedom -- Eunice's awarded in 1984, a decade before the one for her celebrated husband, who founded the Peace Corps and created Head Start to aid in early childhood education.

"People are always coming up to me asking about the Peace Corps, and Head Start and Uncle Jack and Uncle Bobby," Maria Shriver says. "But in equal numbers, they're asking about Special Olympics. And that's all about Mummy."

And "Mummy," who has been critically ill twice in the past decade, is unwilling to stop. Special Olympics, which she founded nearly 40 years ago, is now the world's largest sports program, serving 2.25 million people with intellectual disabilities in more than 150 countries. Her capacity to cajole and inspire is "unlimited. This is a worldwide movement that started in a back yard. That says it all," says Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), the little brother, "Teddy" to her. And she's after him for something, too.

"So Teddy called me this morning," she announces, settled into a chair in her living room, her son Tim next to her. It is three days before her birthday, and Shriver, not one to do many public interviews, has agreed to a rare one at her home. She proceeds to recount her conversation, giving him a melodramatic woe-is-me voice and herself her usual matter-of-fact one.

"Oh, I'm so exhausted!" she says, playing Teddy.

"What's the matter with you? It's only 8 in the morning!" she demands to know from him.

"Oh, I'm soooo tired," she says, mimicking him. "And now I have to go to a camp for you. In Boston! Why am I going to camp? What's all this about camp? Special Olympics, Special Olympics, Special Olympics! All these things I have to do for you!"

Sitting next to his mom, Tim Shriver bursts into laughter. He knows exactly what's coming.

"I don't want to hear another yip out of you!" he crows, seconds before his mother says it. They've managed to arrange for five other Camp Shrivers this year around the country -- one in Teddy's home state -- and she will hear no carping about any of it, even if it's in jest.

The senior senator from Massachusetts later will stress he is very happy to do this, of course. He will say her morning soccer romp "doesn't surprise me. If she didn't win, that would surprise me."

Shriver graduated from Stanford University with a sociology degree and wanted to be a social worker. She had no grand, global vision for helping the mentally retarded; she was just plenty mad.

"I was out there at my house and two women called me and up and said [officials] were not letting their children participate in the city programs for the summer," Shriver recalls, explaining how the original Camp Shriver came about 44 years ago. "Then someone else called me and said they wouldn't take her daughter, because she had Down syndrome. And that was it, I got cross. I got very, very cross."

She's angry just at the memory of it, but then she looks up and immediately dissolves into a smile. Her husband of 53 years, who has Alzheimer's disease, has just come into the room.

"Hi, Sarge, how are you?"

"How are you, darling," he replies, taking her hand and bending down to give it a kiss.

"You got up bright and early this morning," she says, softly touching his arm. "Would you like to sit down over there, Sarge?"

He settles into the sofa and is brought a plate of sugar cookies, which he happily eats while his wife continues to talk about her work. Asked why she discontinued the original Camp Shriver program in 1970, she admits that the demands on her life as wife and sister to such prominent public men played a role.

"I got very busy doing other things, with my husband, with my family," she says. "But then things simmered down finally and I was ready to go again."

The fifth of Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy's nine children, Shriver has been through a lifetime of public triumph and public pain with her family. She lost her oldest brother in the war; big sister Kathleen in a plane crash. She lost two brothers to assassinations and has witnessed Teddy's ups and downs. Through all of that, Rosemary, who died last year, influenced her the most. They were athletic partners in childhood, and Eunice would watch her struggle with her disabilities, be subjected to a lobotomy by order of their father and spend much of her adult life institutionalized, a period of Rosemary's life Eunice describes as "when Rosemary went to Wisconsin."

"I think my mother's relationship with Rosemary was an enormously powerful motivator," says Tim Shriver in a separate phone interview. "I think she saw firsthand that Rosemary was being told no, being rejected from emotional and social settings. She saw her father struggle with the fact that Rosemary couldn't compete at the same level. You can't look at your sister and see her suffering and not want to do something."

But Shriver herself prefers to speak more generally. "What do you do when you're 8 years old and you sit down at the lunch table and no one will sit with you because you're 'retarded'?" she says, looking pained. At another point, she describes how much it hurts a child to be the only one on the sidelines while everyone else plays soccer -- left out because of an issue that is mental, not physical. "Do you know what that's like for a child?" she says. She has passed this fervor on to her own children, who spent several years of their childhood working at Camp Shriver. Tim Shriver now chairs the Special Olympics Board. Each summer, all of the Shriver children send their own kids to Potomac to participate in the camp.

"People forget what it was like when she started," Maria says. "There were no options but an institution. My daughter is going to work this week at her camp. . . . My kids have no clue that before their grandmother's work something like that wouldn't be possible."

Maria describes her mother as a feminist, who believed in pushing her only daughter toward success just as hard as her sons -- that included a solo trip to Africa at age 15 to get a first-hand look at poverty and the power of public service -- but who also saw the power that came with motherhood.

Shriver clearly takes tremendous pride in having raised five children who not only stayed out of trouble but who have all chosen to dedicate themselves to public service as well.

"If they ever name something after me related to the Special Olympics, I want them to include my children's names," she says. "I couldn't have done it without all of them. It's kind of unique; usually the parent does something and starts a foundation, but my children have always been a part of what we do, and all five of them have done wonderful things."

All of her children -- including Maria, who flew in from California with her husband and children -- gathered this past weekend for a private family birthday celebration before the big White House event on the official birthday. Shriver's been at the White House plenty of times in her life, but this was something else entirely.

Among the guests were Barbara Walters, who sat at the president's table, Tim Russert, Vanessa Williams and Olympian Scott Hamilton. Popular country music band Rascal Flatts provided the post-dinner entertainment. And a dozen of Shriver's Special Olympians attended as well.

The president was upstaged by his special guest, who thanked him for supporting her causes and broke up the room by adding: "And, in addition to all of that, you have managed to control Teddy -- at least some of the time." At his table, the senator waved his white napkin in surrender.

Shriver also made special note of her sister. "Tonight," she said, "Rosemary is in Heaven and I miss her."