President John F. Kennedy's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who carried on the family's public service tradition by founding the Special Olympics and championing the rights of the mentally disabled, died Tuesday morning, her family said in a statement. She was 88.
Shriver had suffered a series of strokes in recent years and died at 2 a.m. at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. The hospital is near the Kennedy family compound, where her sole surviving brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, has been battling a brain tumor.
As celebrity, social worker and activist, Shriver was credited with transforming America's view of the mentally disabled from institutionalized patients to friends, neighbors and athletes. Her efforts were inspired in part by the struggles of her mentally disabled sister, Rosemary.
Peter Collier, author of "The Kennedys, an American Drama," called Eunice Shriver the "moral force" of the Kennedy family.
"We have always been honored to share our mother with people of good will the world over who believe, as she did, that there is no limit to the human spirit," her family members said in the statement.
Shriver was also the sister of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the wife of 1972 vice presidential candidate and former Peace Corps director R. Sargent Shriver, and the mother-in-law of Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
With Eunice Shriver's death, Jean Kennedy Smith becomes the last surviving Kennedy daughter.
A 1960 Chicago Tribune profile of the women in then-candidate JFK's family said Shriver was "generally credited with being the most intellectual and politically minded of all the Kennedy women."
When her brother was in the White House, she pressed for efforts to help troubled young people and the mentally disabled. And in 1968, she started what would become the world's largest athletic competition for mentally disabled children and adults. Now, more than 1 million athletes in more than 160 countries participate in Special Olympics meets each year.
"When the full judgment on the Kennedy legacy is made — including JFK's Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, Robert Kennedy's passion for civil rights and Ted Kennedy's efforts on health care, work place reform and refugees — the changes wrought by Eunice Shriver may well be seen as the most consequential," Harrison Rainie, author of "Growing Up Kennedy," wrote in U.S. News & World Report in 1993.
It was Shriver who revealed the condition of her sister Rosemary to the nation during her brother's presidency.
"Early in life Rosemary was different," she wrote in a 1962 article for the Saturday Evening Post. "She was slower to crawl, slower to walk and speak. ... Rosemary was mentally retarded." Rosemary Kennedy underwent a lobotomy when she was 23, though that wasn't mentioned in the article. She lived most of her life in an institution in Wisconsin and died in 2005 at age 86.
The roots of the Special Olympics go back to a summer camp Shriver ran in Maryland in 1963. Shriver would "get right in the pool with the kids; she'd toss the ball," said a niece, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who volunteered at the camp as a teen. "It's that hands-on, gritty approach that awakened her to the kids' needs."
Realizing the children were far more capable of sports than experts said, Shriver organized the first Special Olympics in 1968 in Chicago. The two-day event drew more than 1,000 participants from 26 states and Canada
.By 2003, the Special Olympics World Summer Games, held that year in Dublin, Ireland, involved more than 6,500 athletes from 150 countries. The games are held every four years.
Shriver¹s daughter Maria, who is married to Schwarzenegger, represented her mother at the event in Ireland. Sign Language interpreter and Irish Voice reporter April Drew interpreted for Maria at the opening ceremony of the world games in Dublin that July.
Drew recalls fondly how Shriver paid homage to her then 82-year-old mother. "Maria addressed over 50,000 people at the opening ceremony which proved to be extremely emotional for her," said Drew.
"Maria spoke eloquently about her mothers involvement in setting up the organization and how it was a very important event for the whole family." Following in their mothers footsteps, Maria and her siblings have dedicated their lives to making sure the Special Olympics is an ongoing successful event.
Well into her 70s, Shriver remained a daily presence at the Special Olympics headquarters in Washington.
Juvenile delinquency was another issue that interested Shriver and spurred her to action. In his 1991 book "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America," author Nicholas Lemann said the Kennedy administration's juvenile delinquency commission, "a pet project that had been created to placate Eunice," became the precursor of the vast federal effort to improve the lot of urban blacks.