Awards

The last thing the young Eunice Kennedy ever thought about was awards or accolades. When the movement started, remember, it was not exactly a prescribed path to glory. It was a protracted and frustrating struggle to get the playing field for people with intellectually disabled somewhere near level. Rewards would come, if at all, only in small, calibrated bits.

But once Eunice had succeeded beyond everyone's wildest expectations--perhaps not her own because she expected so much of herself--the recognition began to come. Eunice grudgingly accepted it because, as she saw it, any reward that came to her was a plus for Special Olympics, a way to continue to publicize the movement.

Special Olympics is one of the rare institutions in American culture that cuts across party lines. And so it was altogether fitting that the first noteworthy award given to this member of the most famous Democratic family in America came from a Republican: In 1984 President Ronald Reagan bestowed upon her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian award. Ten years later President Clinton extended it to Sargent Shriver, making them the only husband and wife recipients.

President George H.W. Bush also recognized Eunice for her achievements, recognizing her as part of the Extra Mile National Volunteer Pathway, an initiative of Bush's Points of Light Foundation. And Eunice's Presidential-award connection goes all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt. The National Collegiate Athletic Association presented her with an award named after the old Roughrider, the highest award given by that organization.

Internationally, Eunice received from Prince Albert of Monaco the Laureus Sport for Good Award, which recognizes extraordinary contributions to sport and society. She also received the Legion of Honor, The Priz de la Couronne Francaise, the Order of the Smile of Polish Children and the International Olympic Committee Award.

Institutions of higher education also recognized Eunice's contributions by bestowing her honorary degrees. They included: Yale University, the College of Holy Cross, Princeton University, Regis College, Manhattanville College, Newton College, Brescia College, Central Michigan University, Loyola College, University of Vermont, Albertus Magnus, Cardinal Strich University, Marymount University and Georgetown University.

As Special Olympics began to work harder and harder on health initiatives for people with intellectual disabilities --an aspect of the movement that was barely on the radar screen 30 years ago--the health community began to notice. She received the U.S. Surgeon General Medallion Award for "actions of exceptional achievement to the cause of public health." And later she was inducted into the National Institute of Child Health and Development Hall of Honor which recognizes individuals who have made exceptional contributions to advancing knowledge of human development and improving maternal and child health. Congress also bestowed a special recognition to Eunice when they renamed the National Institute of Child Health and Development in her honor. Today, the Eunice Kennedy NICHD leads national research on causes and cures for children with developmental disabilities

Ask Eunice about the awards, and she will more than likely wave her hand impatiently--her focus was all about the athletes and their families. But two very concrete laurels will make sure that no one forgets her contributions. She is the inaugural recipient of the new Sportsman Legacy Award by Sports Illustrated which she was honored in December 2008 and she was the first living woman ever honored with a legally-tendered coin (the 1995 Special Olympics Commemorative Silver Dollar), her likeness pressed from a portrait by renowned artist Jamie Wyeth. And earlier in 2009 the National Portrait Gallery unveiled a portrait of Eunice and five Special Olympics athletes painted by David Lenz, whose son, Sam, is a Special Olympics athlete. Eunice is the first portrait ever commissioned of an individual who has not served as U.S. President or First Lady.

No one except, perhaps Eunice herself, would say that these accolades are not deserved. Tim Shriver put it best: "If you look at her brothers and sisters and all that they accomplished, no one will stand any higher than my mother."