September 21, 2016

The President Who Nearly Was

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

In this political season—some call it the theater of the absurd—discussions about women presidents evoke strong views.

In the1960s, there was one woman whose contributions to society were so far reaching that, if the times had been more propitious to women, she could have been elected President of the United States.  But it was not to be.

Eunice Kennedy (1921-2009)

Eunice was the fifth child and the third daughter born to Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. As the granddaughter of John F., “Honey Fitz,” Fitzgerald, the famous mayor of Boston, she inherited her mother’s natural political instincts; from her father, the energy, initiative and drive of a human dynamo.    

Rosemary was the third child and first daughter born into the Kennedy family.  Unlike the bright brood of eight other brothers and sisters, she was found to be retarded. Eventually, this fact changed the lives of millions of retarded children and adults because Eunice looked after her older sister for the rest of her life.   

“I had enormous respect for Rosie,” Eunice said of her sister. “If I had never met Rosemary, never known anything about handicapped children, how would I have ever found out?  Nobody accepted them any place.” Through Rosemary’s limitations, Eunice discovered her ministry—really her genius—to spend herself and achieve marvelous things for retarded children throughout the world.  

Academic and Professional Preparation

Educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton, London and at the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, Eunice graduated from Stanford University in 1943 with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology.  She worked for the Special War Problems Division of the U.S. State Department and eventually moved to the U.S. Justice Department as executive secretary for a project dealing with juvenile delinquency.  

In 1951, she served as a social worker at the Federal Industrial Institution for Women before moving to Chicago to work with the House of the Good Shepherd women’s shelter and the Chicago Juvenile Court.  

In 1953, she married Sargent Shriver, an attorney who later worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  He was the driving force behind the creation of the Peace Corps; the founder of the Job Corps, and the architect of Johnson’s “war on poverty.”  During his service as the U.S. ambassador to France from 1968 to 1970, Eunice studied intellectual disabilities there.  
    
Advocate for the Mentally Retarded

Among advocates of every kind, Eunice excelled as this country’s advocate for the mentally retarded.   In 1962, an exhausted and distressed mother of a retarded child phoned Eunice at her home.  No summer camp would accept her child, she said. Eunice responded with largesse by opening her own home as a summer camp—free of charge—at Timberlawn, the family estate in Maryland,. She would get in the pool and teach the youngsters to swim, loving them as her own children.

Eunice and Her Brothers

Eunice’s advocacy for the mentally retarded was overshadowed by the political pursuits of her three brothers, but she far surpassed them as the natural politician.  More than once it has been said that Eunice would have made a fine President of the Unites States.

Eunice made it a habit of calling the offices of her more famous brothers urging them to another project for the retarded. Teasingly, they dubbed her repeated requests nagging. Yet, they dared not ignore them.

President Kennedy set up research centers on mental retardation.  Robert Kennedy inspected squalid state mental institutions, and Sen. Edward Kennedy helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act.  “It was extraordinary of her to conceive that she too, could play a role comparable to that of her brothers,” Edward Shorter says, author of The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation.  “Her leadership role would be in the area of mental retardation rather than on the big political stage.”

In 1968, Eunice founded the Special Olympics.  Today, they include more than 2.25 million people in 160 countries. “She had the genius to see that she, in fact, was capable of major achievements helping these kids, and that is what she did.  She dedicated her life to it,” writes Shorter.  

Awards

Among the many awards Eunice Kennedy Shriver received, the most notable are:
1984  Presidential Medal of Honor by Ronald Reagan highest civilian award in U.S.
1990  Eagle award from the U.S. Sports Academy
1992  Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged
1995  Second American to appear on a U.S. coin while still living
2006  Papal Knighthood and made Dame of the Order of St. Gregory
2009 Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled an historic portrait of her, the first portrait of the NPG has ever commissioned of an individual who had not served as a US President or First Lady.
2010 The State University of New York at Brockport, home of the 1979 Special Olympics, renamed its football stadium after Eunice Shriver.  (Awarded posthumously)

Later Years    

At 85, Eunice was not about to retire or relax.  She continued her tireless work on the issues concerning those with special needs “because in so many countries, the retarded are not accepted in the schools, not accepted in play programs, just not accepted. We have so much to do.”     Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her husband were devout Roman Catholics and lifelong Democrats. Both staunchly pro-life, Eunice was a member of Feminists for Life. She died in 2009, her husband, in 2011.  

The epilogue of the Book of Proverbs is a fitting tribute to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a woman of noble character.  She lived for others.

Proverbs 31:10-31 Epilogue: The Wife of Noble Character    
10 [a]A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
    and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
    all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
    and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
    bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
    she provides food for her family
    and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
    out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
    her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
    and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
    and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
    and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
    for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
    she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
    where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
    and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
    she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
    and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
    but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.