"What a great moment for me, my son, the world. What you have made possible for so many people defies all reason." LOWELL WEICKER, JR.
Former United States Senator
"She is the single most competitive person I have ever known," says her daughter, Maria, the First Lady of California and the second oldest of five children born to Eunice and Sargent Shriver. Maria believes that her mother's competitiveness came from her mother, Rose, an extraordinary woman who suffered so much tragedy yet remained the prototypical Public Woman, a philanthropist, patron, and, as much as anything, the motivating force for her accomplished brood.
The youngest Kennedy son, Teddy, thought that Eunice's place in the family (she was the middle of nine children) was a factor in Eunice's go-get-'em attitude. "Her older brothers [Joe and Jack] were very active," says the senior senator from Massachusetts. "They were athletes, very good students and had a lot of friends. Eunice had to compete. Around her brothers and sisters, she always seemed to try a little harder, be a little more involved and a little more engaged."
Competitiveness is not always a good thing, of course, not if it's entirely self-directed. Eunice's was not. Yes, she was motivated to keep up with the Kennedys in games and organized sports (she loved swimming) and academics. But from an early age she directed her competitive fever toward Rosemary, her older sister. Taking care of a person with intellectual disability was even more difficult back in the 1930s and 1940s when Eunice herself was a young woman, trying to find her identity and her place in the Kennedy legacy. But Eunice saw it as a challenge.
"Eunice was the one who spent the extra time with Rosemary, teaching her, working with her, and making sure that Rosemary felt included," says Teddy. "My mother was very supportive and very involved, and my father as well, but among our brothers and sisters Eunice was the one that took the extra time. All of us could see the joy that relationship gave Rosemary, and the difference it made in her life. It was that spirit that Eunice showed so early, of course, that eventually gave rise to Special Olympics."
Had Eunice been born in a later time-who knows?-perhaps she would've gone into politics. Perhaps she would've been the "President Kennedy" or the "Senator Kennedy" we came to know. She always campaigned actively for her brothers. But, in a way, as she blazed her trail and the brothers blazed theirs, Eunice could be considered the most political person in her family, if you define politics as accomplishing things for the public good.
Eunice became a wife in 1953, and she didn't have to do much to light a fire under her husband, Robert Sargent Shriver, himself an accomplished man who served as ambassador to France from 1968 to 1970 and was enlisted as George McGovern's Democratic running mate in 1972. But Sargent grew gradually more involved in Special Olympics and, as son Tim put it, "he had the zeal of the convert. My mother made sure of that."
When Eunice became a mother, it was inevitable she would convey the same kind of competitiveness and challenge to make a mark upon the world to her own children. Tim says his mother's greatest gift was "making important things fun," as when she got her children involved at Camp Shriver. Eunice strongly encouraged her children to learn and take the most from any activity; all the while reminding them of their responsibility to make a difference and contribute to the world. "There was a certain standard to our life," says Tim. "Mom made sure we knew it." Camp Shriver is only one example of many that her children vividly recall.
Maria remembers coming home for a casual visit a few years ago. She dropped her bags and wasn't in the house for five minutes when Eunice told her that her brothers were out playing tennis. "You're as good as them, you can beat them," she said. "Don't you want to go out there and show them?" Maria laughs about it now, but, had she been a child still under her mother's wing, she knows where she would've been: outside hitting forehands.
"That's the way she grew up and that's the way she raised us," says Maria. "Don't come back unless you're a winner and certainly don't come back unless you competed."
Eunice stressed this competitive and giving back philosophy to all her children, Bobby, Maria, Timothy, Mark and Anthony but to her nineteen grandchildren as well.
That kind of zeal extended to Eunice's "extended" family. She had millions of "sons" and "daughters," the athletes on every continent on earth and a like number of "brothers" and "sisters," the Special Olympics employees, parents and volunteers all over the world. She gave them all unwavering love ... but it came with the same don't-give-up message.
"She sets a standard that is extremely high for her children, for her grandchildren and everything that she works with," said Maria. "She does not take no for an answer."
It was the kind of tough love she learned so long ago as a member of one of America's toughest families.