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Making History: How Anne Burke met Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Special Olympics began

As a young PE teacher in 1968, the future state supreme court justice Anne Burke worked tirelessly to realize the first Special Olympics—opening a long and tangled relationship with Eunice Kennedy Shriver

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On August 4th, Anne Burke, a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court, steered up the driveway of the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. A South Side Irish Catholic—the daughter of a bartender—Burke found herself suitably enthralled by the mythic spot: the lawns of touch-football fame sweeping to Nantucket Sound, the white clapboard manse, the boathouse and beloved yachts. “This was pretty cool,” says Burke, 65.

Her friends Chris Kennedy, the president of MMPI—the company that owns the Merchandise Mart—and his wife, Sheila, had invited Burke for the visit. But she hardly had time to take in the splendor before Chris revealed that Eunice Kennedy Shriver lay dying in a nearby hospital. The news struck a deeply personal chord. In 1968, Shriver and Burke, who was then 24, changed history. They worked together, though in far different capacities, to launch what would become one of the world’s most successful charities: the Special Olympics.

But Burke didn’t visit the hospital to pay her final respects. Shriver’s condition was too dire; besides, Shriver and Burke hadn’t exchanged words in years.

Shriver died a week later, at 88. Burke called her “my mentor and my friend” in the Chicago Sun-Times; she offered similarly kind words in the New York Times obituary. In reality, theirs was a complex relationship that existed mostly from afar, one that left Burke grate­ful for having known the powerful force that was Eunice Kennedy Shriver but also dis­ap­pointed, feeling that Shriver and the Kaennedy machine had usurped a Chicago-born idea.

In January 1968, 23-year-old Anne McGlone needed new clothes. She was flying to Washington, D.C., to meet Eunice Shriver—an actual Kennedy, fifth of the nine children of Joseph and Rose. As a full-time physical education teacher for the Chicago Park District, Burke says, “my whole world was swimming suits and track-and-field stuff. I had very few nice outfits.”

She soon discovered that attire ranked low on Shriver’s agenda. “Eunice flew into the room like a burst of wind”—wearing a dress and striped stockings, recalls Burke. “But when I put my glasses on, I saw that the stripes were runs [in her nylons]. And I thought, Okay, this is going to be okay. She’s normal.”

The Chicagoan—who would marry Ed Burke, the future alderman, in May of that year—was there to get money for an idea she’d had: a citywide sports meet for children whom society then called “mentally retarded.”

If Shriver lacked interest in her stockings, she had it in spades for this particular cause. She was especially close to her intellectually disabled sister, Rosemary; growing up, the two swam, sailed, and even traveled through Europe together. And since 1957, when Shriver had taken the reins of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation (funded by her father and named for her late older brother), she had funneled money into special school programs, national panels, and university research on behalf of the mentally impaired.

One grant, a $10,000 gift in 1965, had been funding year-round sports classes for mentally challenged kids at ten Chicago parks. Burke had volunteered to teach the classes at West Pullman Park. “I had never even seen a retarded person,” she says. “Parents wouldn’t bring them to the parks, because kids would make fun of them.” But after a weeklong training session, she began teaching her new charges to ice-skate, cheerlead, and play games. “I got the [able] kids in the park to be my junior counselors, so they were not making fun of [the disabled kids]. After a year, I had about 100 kids, and people were saying, ‘This is good.’ ”

Then Burke came up with the idea of holding a sports meet “to bring more disabled to the program and so that Chicagoans could see that these children had abilities.”

Her park district boss Dan Shannon joined her in D.C. to meet with Shriver. “We just wanted financial support,” he recalls. “And Anne started to talk, and it just went over. There was no ‘if.’ It was ‘when.’”

Shriver’s own motives were at work. She and members of the Kennedy Foundation had bandied about the idea of an Olympics-type project before, writes Edward Shorter, the author of The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation. At a public appearance in Dallas in 1965, for example, Shriver called for “a national tournament of athletic contests among teams of mentally retarded children.” But, as with many of the foundation’s ideas, no one had gotten around to executing it.

Chicago was as good a place as any to launch a trial balloon. From their 1953 wedding until 1961, Eunice and her husband, Sargent Shriver, had lived at 2430 Lakeview Avenue in Lincoln Park. The family had connections here. Sargent Shriver, who helped run the Kennedy-owned Merchandise Mart, served as president of the city’s board of education.

“In retrospect, I can see that [at that meeting] I was irrelevant,” Burke says. “Eunice knew that behind me was the city of Chicago, where they knew Daley and everybody. I was just the point person the park district had sent and she had to deal with. But she treated me very well, with respect.” Shriver asked Burke to submit a proposal; after some revisions, the Kennedy Foundation donated $25,000 for the park district’s sports meet.

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Illustration: Owen Sherwood

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