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
Ed and Anne Burke at Soldier Field for the inaugural Special Olympics in 1968
It fell to Burke to organize and run what would be dubbed the Chicago Special Olympics, scheduled for July 20, 1968, at Soldier Field. Despite her youth, she had no problem taking charge. “She had a ponytail! I thought she was 19,” recalls Patricia Condon, a volunteer. “And here she is ordering around heads of departments, riggers, electricians, plumbing people.”
Burke’s proposal had suggested 500 entrants from Illinois and nearby states. But the event quickly expanded as Shriver’s influence made itself felt. “She funded all these different programs, especially on the East Coast,” Burke explains. “And pretty soon we started getting inquiries: ‘Can we come?’ So we had 23 states and Canada.”
Though a Kennedy Foundation adviser often flew in to keep tabs on the planning, Shriver was otherwise engaged in her brother Robert’s campaign for the presidency. On June 5th, he was assassinated. To Shriver’s enduring credit, her commitment to the Chicago Special Olympics never wavered.
By July 20th, all the pieces were in place. A swimming pool had been installed on the north end of Soldier Field. Some 1,000 athletes had converged on the “Olympic Village”—the now-defunct LaSalle Hotel. Shriver flew in from Paris, where her husband was the new ambassador to France.
But the day started disconcertingly for the Chicagoans. Shriver held a press conference with Burke, Shannon, and the park district president, Bill McFetridge. She announced, to their surprise, that the Kennedy Foundation was taking over the games. Specifically, it was “underwriting a national Special Olympics training program” and “another International Special Olympics in 1970 and every two years thereafter.”
Burke says, “[I] thought it was a very good idea, but then I thought, Did I miss something? Why didn’t you mention it earlier?”
The years may have softened her feelings. In a 1993 interview with Edward Shorter for his book, she said, “We were absolutely in shock. . . . In retrospect, they used us. Everything we did, our expertise, they just used it to conceive and develop their program. This was a trial run for them, which we didn’t know.”
After the games, Burke got a typed letter from Shriver: “When the history of the Chicago Special Olympics is written, there will have to be a special chapter to recount the contributions of Ann Burke. . . . We all owe you a debt of gratitude.”
It was a gracious letter—despite the misspelling of Anne’s name. Still, some of the Chicagoans felt as if a hostile takeover had occurred.
The Kennedy Foundation quickly incorporated the games as Special Olympics, Inc., in the District of Columbia—effectively preventing the Chicagoans from keeping their own event. The board of directors included only one Chicagoan: Thomas King, the manager of the Merchandise Mart.
“We had just spent four years actually doing this type of training, in park programs and public facilities,” Burke says now. “So my issue, more than anything else, was that I thought Dan Shannon or someone from the park district should have been on the board. Not me; I was a phys-ed teacher and, you know, I was on to other things.”
Burke wrote a letter to Shriver saying as much and suggesting that Mayor Daley be added to the board. On stationery from the American embassy in Paris, Shriver replied that, in fact, Burke had been “unanimously elected by the other trustees.” The letter added that Shriver’s adviser Frank Hayden would be in touch “about meetings etc. . . .”
“Sorry it took so long,” Shriver concluded, “but we are all aboard now.”
Burke says she doesn’t recall getting a single message about a board meeting, and she never participated in any way on the board. “Initially there were a lot of promises about how Chicago would be intimately involved in the role of Special Olympics,” Ed Burke says. “But it didn’t take too long for the Kennedy Foundation to forget those early commitments. And I think once they figured they didn’t need her, [Anne] was extraneous.”
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Photograph: Courtesy of Anne Burke/Bill Faison Foto
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.”
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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