A Letter from Edgar MayFormer Inspector General of OEO

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the most determined, focused woman I ever was privileged to call my friend.

It was those qualities that brought millions of intellectually disabled individuals out of the shadows of family discomfort into the sunlight of proud individual achievement based only on one measure: Each person's own capacity to do their best.

She called it Special Olympics, a global movement that began in her backyard summer camp in Maryland and grew to include the intellectually disabled and often shunned of 180 countries, from rural, impoverished villages in Africa, to the Southside ghetto of Chicago.

My association with Eunice began nearly 45 years ago in what a casual observer would call less than auspicious circumstances.

At our first meeting, I pressed the doorbell at their Maryland home and the button promptly got stuck. The bell rang incessantly until Sarge Shriver, the head of the Peace Corps, came out with a wicked looking butcher knife we used to liberate the stuck button.

In the next few months of our growing relationship I managed to kick Eunice in her pregnant belly during a vigorously competitive water polo game in the family pool. (In the Kennedy-Shriver sporting lexicon all family athletic events are "vigorously competitive." The sole object was to be on the winning side.)

For an encore, a few months later I sent her 10-year-old daughter, Maria, sprawling in a touch football collision. Now in most families such energetic excess would lead to a quick exit from the inner circle. In the Shriver-Kennedy rules of sporting etiquette, they are merely favorable indicators that you are trying to do your very best.

It was that standard that was the centerpiece of Eunice's life.

It surfaced consistently whether she was quietly encouraging a Downs Syndrome youngster to attempt the broad jump at a Special Olympic competition or talking to General Charles de Gaulle, the President of France about starting her program in his country.

She succeeded on both fronts. I was asked to help her with what was to be the first Special Olympics in Europe when her husband, Sargent Shriver was ambassador to France. It was a chilling time for Franco-American relations. But both Sarge and Eunice helped defrost some of it, not only with their personal charm but with a clear focus on helping the French intellectually disabled.

Some of those early meetings with our new French friends were shrouded in a linguistic fog hovering over our special version of Franglais, a Franco-American communication system to which we added some inventive phrases. We all were taking an intensive crash course in French with varying success. Eunice, whose steel-trap mind often was a syllable or two ahead of her vocal interpretation, got the point across with a combination of creative flourishes that started with a smattering of French words, and then was amplified by French-accented English. A dash of determination and grit spiced the mixture. It worked.

A vibrant Special Olympics program was established in France. And on the last day of Sarge's ambassadorship, General De Gaulle sent a top aide to the airport with a huge floral bouquet and a personal note to Eunice.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a public person. But what impressed me was that in private the same determination and focus were never far behind. At family dinners at Timberlawn, their Maryland home, at Hyannisport or around the large antique table in the ornate, high-ceilinged residence in Paris, there was both food and food for thought. Current events were as much a staple as the salt and pepper shakers.

Eunice and Sarge, both with full schedules, made it a point that at least one of them would be home for dinner with the children. It was an article of faith. Some nights dinner guests ranged from the Berrigan brothers, a pair of priests who were on the government's "Bad Boy" list for their vociferous opposition to the Vietnam War, an occasional Bishop or Congressman, to Arthur Ashe, the tennis champion.

The children were participants in the conversations and were regularly asked what they thought about the subject at hand. For those of us at the table, it was self-preservation to review the day's Washington Post and New York Times before showing up for dinner.

There will be many tributes to Eunice Kennedy Shriver about her global impact. For those of us who could share those years, Eunice and Sarge taught us that there was only one standard. Only one measure. That standard was excellence. Do your best.

It made each of us better than we ever thought we could be. It was a precious lesson, a gift durable for a life time.

About Edgar May

Edgar May is a Pulitzer Prize Winner for investigative reporting. He is aformer Inspector General of OEO, Vermont State Shriver and COO of Special Olympics.