I read today that Eunice Kennedy Shriver has passed away. She was the sister of John F. Kennedy.
So why’s she mean anything to me? A few months ago, I listened to the audio-book of Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life, which is a biography of President John F. Kennedy. Dallek said that JFK had a sister with mental retardation, and her name was Rosemary. The father of the Kennedy clan, Joe Sr., made sure that all of his kids treated Rosemary with respect. And Dallek stated that John Kennedy was patient, understanding, and sympathetic with people as a result of his experience with Rosemary.
Rosemary inspired Eunice to do a lot of work for people with mental retardation, helping them to live productive and fulfilling lives. Perhaps her most famous institution is the Special Olympics, where young people with mental retardation can find a place for themselves and gain self-respect. She started her work in the 1960’s, while her brother was President. According to the AP, “At the time, those with mental retardation were often a secret source of shame to their families and were quietly put away in institutions.”
When I heard Dallek talk about Rosemary, I was surprised. In my eyes, the Kennedy family would be the last place I’d want to be if I were mentally disabled. When I was a kid, I read a short book about the Kennedys and how they valued accomplishment. When the kids played sports, the book said, Joe made sure that only the winner got honored, while the losers were ignored. He told his eldest son that he would be President, while John had his task laid out for him. But the eldest son died, so the task of becoming President fell on John.
In a family that emphasized winning and achievement, would the Kennedys accept someone who had to struggle, often with things that many of us take for granted? And yet, they did. Whatever their flaws, they were compassionate people, and their experiences with Rosemary only made them more compassionate.
Eunice’s other accomplishment is that she’s the mother of First Lady Maria Shriver, a confident lady in her own right.
R.I.P., Eunice Kennedy Shriver.