Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a member of the Kennedy clan who devoted much of her life to children's charities, including founding the Special Olympics, died Tuesday morning in Hyannis, Mass. She was 88 years old.
Mrs. Kennedy Shriver had suffered a series of strokes in recent years and died at 2 a.m. ET at Cape Cod Hospital, her family said in a statement. Her husband, her five children and all 19 of her grandchildren were by her side, the statement said.
"She was the light of our lives, a mother, wife, grandmother, sister and aunt who taught us by example and with passion what it means to live a faith-driven life of love and service to others," the family said.
A Look Back
Part of the politically influential Kennedy clan, Mrs. Kennedy Shriver was a sister of the late President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward Kennedy, and the mother of Maria Shriver, the first lady of California. She had been married since 1953 to Sargent Shriver, who served as the first director of the U.S. Peace Corps and an ambassador to France.
Sen. Kennedy remembered his sister Tuesday for her "great humor, sharp wit and a boundless passion" as a young girl. He said in a statement that Mrs. Kennedy Shriver learned the lessons of their parents -- that much is expected of those to much has been given. The senator, battling brain cancer, said although his sister touched the lives of millions, it was never enough for her.
President Barack Obama issued a statement, calling her "an extraordinary woman who, as much as anyone, taught our nation -- and our world -- that no physical or mental barrier can restrain the power of the human spirit."
Known for her devotion to the mentally disabled community and in particular her mentally disabled sister, Rosemary, Mrs. Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics in 1968. For years before, she had invited mentally disabled children to a summer camp held in the backyard of her Maryland home. From the first group of 35 children, the Special Olympics grew into an organization that now hosts 227 programs in more than 180 countries and includes more than three million participants.
"With enormous conviction and unrelenting effort, Eunice Kennedy Shriver has labored on behalf of America's least-powerful people, those with mental retardation," President Ronald Reagan said, when presenting Mrs. Kennedy Shriver with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.
The Special Olympics were designed "to demonstrate that people with mental retardation are capable of remarkable achievements in sports, education, employment and beyond," Mrs. Kennedy Shriver said.
Born on July 10, 1921, in Brookline, Mass., Mrs. Kennedy Shriver was the fifth of Joseph and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy's nine children. Devoutly religious throughout her life, she originally planned to become a nun, according to "The Kennedys: An American Drama" by Peter Collier and David Horowitz.
She earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Stanford University, did social work in Manhattan's neighborhood of Harlem and worked for the State Department helping American prisoners of World War II returning from Germany adjust to life back in the U.S. For a while, she lived with her brother John, at the time a freshman congressman, in a Georgetown townhouse, working as a government secretary.
Sargent Shriver courted her doggedly for seven years, before concluding he had to start dating other women, Messrs. Collier and Horowitz wrote. Hearing this, Mrs. Kennedy Shriver rushed home from Europe, declaring, "He's not marrying anybody but me." When the couple wed in 1953, Mrs. Kennedy Shriver had to climb a ladder to cut the eight-layer wedding cake -- a seven-foot pastry replicated in 1986, when her daughter married bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, now governor of California.
Mrs. Kennedy Shriver's siblings figured prominently in her life. She campaigned for her brothers at block parties and traveled to Texas when John Kennedy ran for president. Her sister, Rosemary, who was born mentally disabled, helped propel her to start the Special Olympics and initiate legislative changes.
As executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, named after her brother killed as a pilot in World War II, Mrs. Kennedy Shriver helped change civil-service regulations to allow mentally disabled people to be evaluated on ability rather than just test scores, and set up a program to provide free dental care for participants of the Special Olympics, among other efforts.
"If that girl had been born with balls, she would have been a hell of a politician," her father once said, according to Messrs. Collier and Horowitz.
Mrs. Kennedy Shriver was the first living woman to appear on a commemorative coin, the 1995 silver dollar.
"She was certainly a feminist before that was cool or out there, and yet she always combined it with talking about motherhood," Maria Shriver told Orange Coast magazine in May 2004. "She raised me to believe you are as good as the boys, as tough and as competitive as the boys, and you need to do something to help the world."