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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Eunice Kennedy Shriver overlooking Soldier Field
Eunice Kennedy Shriver overlooking Soldier Field

 

Burke’s official involvement with the International Special Olympics ended after she helped stage the 1970 games—which the Kennedy Foundation gave to Chicago despite bids from other cities. She moved on to having five children, attending law school, and working as an attorney and then as a judge.

But her relationship with Eunice Shriver would play out for four more decades. The two ran into each other “about every two years, minimum,” Burke says, at the Illinois Special Olympics and other charity fundraisers. And in 1971, Shriver asked Burke to be her scheduler when she and Sargent campaigned in Chicago during his run for U.S. vice president.

The relationship was always distant, though. “It was, ‘Oh, hi, how are you, how are the kids?’ ” Burke says. She never got an invitation to any of the games, “which is all I really cared about. I went anyway”—to watch the kids she had grown to love at West Pullman Park, some of whom competed at the international level. In fact, Shriver never mentioned Burke’s role in founding the first event. “We never talked about it; she never said anything,” Burke recalls.

For a long time, the only person who seemed to remember—at least publicly—was a friend of Burke’s, the Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed. And Sneed wasn’t shy about running items relaying the latest “snub” Burke had endured from Shriver. The most intriguing was when Burke and her husband attended a John F. Kennedy Profiles In Courage banquet in 1992. Shriver and Burke were seated back-to-back at adjacent tables. Shriver saw Burke and “she just turned around,” Burke recalls. No words were exchanged. “But she did see me.”

Of course, Shriver genuinely might not have recognized the Burkes. Chris Kennedy, Eunice’s nephew, says that his aunt was often sick; she reportedly had Addison’s disease from the 1960s on, and later suffered a series of small strokes.

But on that night in 1992, Burke is certain that Shriver simply chose not to speak to her, for whatever reason. “I think maybe she just didn’t want to remember me as the gal that came to her [with this idea],” Burke says. “That’s probably the bottom line.”

Burke insists she had other things to think about rather than getting recognized for helping found the Special Olympics, and her friends agree. “Anne is the type of person—it was her idea, but who got the applause for the idea, I don’t think it made any difference to Anne,” says Dan Shannon, her former boss.

At the same time, watching herself erased from history in each new Special Olympics program, magazine article, or website sometimes took its toll. “I know she was hurt, initially,” Sneed says.

On rare occasions, Burke tried to lift herself and Chicago out of the Special Olympics dustbin. In 2003, she reached out to Chris Kennedy, who raised money to send a delegation of the original 1968 athletes and their families to Dublin for the 35th anniversary of the games. Burke and the veteran athletes were supposed to be announced on the loudspeakers as they led the parade of athletes at the opening ceremonies (which were attended by more than 80,000 fans). But something happened, and the Chicago group became an afterthought—hurried onto the field to walk a quick lap before the parade even started. Whether the trouble was mismanagement or an outright “snub”—as Sneed called it in her column—is anyone’s guess. “I was furious,” Chris Kennedy says, but he declines to elaborate on what went wrong.

“We were all very disappointed, but the kids had a ball [being on the field],” Burke says. “One of the parents, Mrs. Cusack, I’ll never forget: She came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘Anne, I thought when Michael was born it was the end of our lives, but you made it the beginning.’ That kind of thing makes it worthwhile.”

* * *

No one seriously thinks Eunice Shriver was personally snubbing Anne Burke all those years. But to this day, neither Burke nor the Chicago Park District is mentioned on the otherwise exhaustive website of the Special Olympics. And only in 2007, while sitting in upper-deck seats at the games in Shanghai, did Burke see a program finally mentioning her role in founding the event. She might have missed it had Ed not pointed it out.

“I never liked to read [the programs] because I don’t like to reaffirm what I already know,” Anne Burke says. “So he said, ‘Here’s your name.’ I started to cry.”

Ed Burke recalls, “It was almost an opening of the clouds after all those years, that they would finally acknowledge Anne’s role. And there we were in nosebleed seats.” More important than the nod, he says, is the success of the games. “She’s never harbored ill will or jealousy, and there’s not a doubt [that] if not for Kennedy’s involvement, [Special Olympics] would not have reached the worldwide ramifications that it did.”

“I don’t think Eunice deliberately set out to shove Anne to the side,” Ed Burke adds. “But I think it’s part of the way the whole Kennedy machine was designed, to emphasize the role the Kennedys played.”

Chris Kennedy, who says that Eunice “had very fond feelings toward Anne,” takes a different view. “Eunice and the Kennedys generally—you look at their campaign staffs, you look at their elected staffs, the Kennedy office staff . . . those are not jobs you take if you are looking for a pat on the back or someone to light a candle in your honor,” he says. “We find that if you start dealing with the issues of credit, that that can become overly complicated and be a hindrance to success. But others can see that as an intentional snub that, in fact, never occurs. So Eunice, she [was] operating on all these different fronts, and the whole credit thing, it’s not part of her makeup. It’s irrelevant. Yeah, that was in 1968. They trained [30,000 Special Olympics] coaches in India last year. Eunice is like, We’re here.

In the end, Burke says that her kind words for Shriver in The New York Times and the Sun-Times were genuine. “But for her, I probably wouldn’t have had the ability to pursue [things] the way I have in my life,” Burke explains. “I think I watched her and how she would get other people to collaborate. She knew people; I knew people. I try to put them together and make bigger things happen. It’s her model; it’s she that did that to me. She was a major influence from afar, [which] she never knew. She never knew.”

 

Photograph: Courtesy of Special Olympics

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