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Shriver Gave Heart, Soul to Help Disabled

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of a president and U.S. senators, was lauded after her death Tuesday for a towering achievement of her own: ending the stigma associated with mental disabilities.

Shriver died at a hospital near the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport, Mass. She was 88 and had suffered several strokes in recent years.

Shriver - spurred by her love for her developmentally disabled sister, Rosemary - devoted much of her life to raising money and awareness to help people with mental disabilities. Her signature accomplishment was the founding of the Special Olympics, which sponsors competitions for disabled athletes.

"If you don't have an idea that materializes and changes a person's life, then what have you got?" Shriver told USA TODAY in 2006. "You have talk, you have research, you have telephone calls, you have meetings, but you don't have a change in the community."

With Shriver's death, only two of her eight siblings survive: Sen. Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., and Jean Kennedy Smith.

Her younger brother, who is fighting brain cancer, praised his sister's "boundless passion to make a difference."

"She understood deeply the lesson our mother and father taught us - much is expected of those to whom much has been given," the senator said in a statement.

Such praise came from around the globe and across party lines.

"She is an American original, and the world will be a poorer place for her absence," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement.

Pope Benedict XVI also sent condolences to Shriver's family, as did President Barack Obama, who hailed her as "a champion for people with intellectual disabilities."

Among her siblings, Shriver "was the most competitive of the family," said historian James Hilty of Temple University, author of a biography of Shriver's brother, Robert Kennedy. "Her father said if she'd been born (a boy), she would've been president," he said.

Eunice Kennedy was born July 10, 1921, the fifth of nine children, to Joseph and Rose Kennedy in Brookline, Mass. She attended Catholic schools and earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Stanford University in 1943.

She held jobs in social work but kept a hand in politics. She campaigned for her brothers: John, who became president; Robert, a New York senator; and Edward.

In 1953, she married Robert Sargent Shriver Jr., who ran for vice president with George McGovern on the 1972 Democratic ticket, and he helped found the Peace Corps and Head Start, the child development program.

The couple had five children, including Maria, a former TV reporter married to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Mark, a former Maryland state legislator; and Tim, who is chairman of the board for the Special Olympics.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver's sister Rosemary, born with mental retardation made worse by a surgical lobotomy, spent most of her adult life at a private institution and died in 2005. Shriver devoted much of her energies to countering the social stigma once attached to mental disabilities.

"If I never met Rosemary, never known anything about handicapped children, how would I have ever found out? Because nobody accepted them anyplace," she told National Public Radio in 2007.

In 1956, she became head of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, which helped fund Catholic organizations and those that benefited the mentally disabled. In 1962, she opened her Maryland estate to a summer camp for mentally disabled children.

In July 1968, just weeks after Robert Kennedy was killed while campaigning for president, about 1,000 people from 26 U.S. states and Canada participated in the first Special Olympics at Soldier Field in Chicago. Shriver persuaded Chicago officials to join with her foundation to sponsor it.

Today, the organization says it serves almost 3 million children in 180 countries.

Shriver brought a dose of Kennedy charisma to the causes she championed, said Bob Johnson, head of the Massachusetts branch of the Special Olympics.

"She was a magnet," he said. "Anywhere that she was, people would just crowd around her."

Her children testified to the drive that helped her overcome prejudice and inertia. "When I feel a little daunted," her son Robert said in 2007, "I think about, 'What would Mother do?' The answer is, run them over."

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