Authors: Kate Clifford Larson
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #JFK, #Nonfiction, #Retail
Eunice had become interested in social work during college, and upon graduation began working in various social-service agencies. Securing a position in the Justice Department for the National Council on Preventing Juvenile Delinquency, she began working on the problem of troubled and at-risk youth. Preferring more direct social service, she moved on to the federal penitentiary in Alderson, West Virginia, to counsel incarcerated women. Eventually landing back in Chicago to work with young offenders through the juvenile-court system and to volunteer at the Catholic House of the Good Shepherd, she met her husband-to-be, Sargent Shriver. After marrying, in 1953, Eunice devoted her time to her growing family but remained active in Jack’s campaigns.
Now, the Kennedy Foundation captivated Eunice’s attention
and served as an outlet for her passion for social justice. With her father’s support, Eunice, in 1958, began investigating the status of research into intellectual disabilities by visiting hospitals and institutions that offered custodial care, treatment, and educational programs for the disabled. In August 1958, after visiting the Saint Coletta Home in Hanover, Massachusetts, and the Joseph P. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, serving handicapped children in Brighton, Massachusetts—the latter of which had been an early and rare exception to the foundation’s typical funding commitments—Eunice wrote excitedly to her parents that these facilities were fertile grounds for research into intellectual disabilities. The hospital, she wrote, “is doing so much and doing it so well that they can take my money and spend it.” She had spoken with the doctors about introducing research studies, and she believed that, with the help of the “fabulous nuns,” the facility was a “gold mine for research.”
Eunice and Sarge, a committed partner to Eunice in her cause, worked fast. They established a medical and scientific advisory board at the foundation and appointed Dr. Robert Cooke, head of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, to chair that board and to advise on strategies for research funding.
The father of two intellectually disabled children, Cooke viewed the crisis of the disabled child not as a problem to be placed out of sight but as an area of pediatrics that needed attention. Medicine, he believed, should be “as concerned with care as cure.”
The Shrivers proposed to Richard Masland, director of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness, that he establish a research center and clinical programs on child health at Johns Hopkins.
Other doctors and scientists were consulted, and a new vision and mission for the Kennedy Foundation emerged.
Eunice felt the family could make a sizable impact in the field.
Social stigma, misunderstanding, and lack of knowledge about disabilities had contributed to a critical shortage of research and facilities. Eunice redirected the distribution of the foundation’s funds to research into the causes of intellectual disabilities, pre- and postnatal care, education, and medical services. Educational outreach and support services, the construction of homes for the disabled, funding for research, and construction of research centers could now engage a significant portion of the foundation’s financial resources. In 1957, a decade after its founding, the foundation had committed only seventeen percent of its gifts to research and programs devoted to developmental and intellectual disabilities. By 1960, this percentage had tripled.
Joe, never one to waste an opportunity to promote the family, understood that any foundation gift was sure to be covered in the press and would keep the Kennedy name in the news. His giving was also genuine, however, and many donations were gifted anonymously or with little fanfare or recognition. With a new vision in place—Eunice’s vision—Joe quietly transferred control of the foundation’s giving to her and Sarge.
Jack’s eventual commitment to legislation in support of research and education coincided with the foundation’s newfound mission. In 1958 he was one of eleven senators sponsoring modified legislation directing additional federal assistance to states to expand research and education for mentally disabled children. The legislation passed both houses of Congress and became Public Law No. 85-924–926, which became the foundation for Title III, a federal program supporting certain specialized education programs under the Higher Education Act of 1965.
HE FACT OF
Rosemary’s condition was not directly addressed by Jack’s presidential campaign. In July 1960,
vealed in a feature article on Jack’s campaign that “Rosemary, the eldest of the Kennedy daughters, was a childhood victim of spinal meningitis, [and] is now a patient in a nursing home in Wisconsin.” The article did not directly state that she lived with intellectual disabilities, nor was it revealed that it was the lobotomy that had further disabled her. Joe Kennedy was quoted claiming, “I used to think it was something to hide, but then I learned that almost everyone I know has a relative or good friend who has the problem. I think it best to bring these things out in the open.” It was only in a footnote at the end of the article that a diagnosis was implied:
Rosemary’s misfortune has resulted in the major Kennedy philanthropy, which is the good fortune of the mentally retarded, and typically, an all-absorbing project of the entire clan: the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Since its inception in 1948, the foundation has spent $13.5 million on a dozen homes and hospitals for the mentally retarded in Massachusetts, New York, Illinois and California. This year $10 million is being spent recruiting eminent doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists to work on a dramatic new research program.
New York Times
reported in an article on Kennedy’s campaign that same week that “Rosemary is in a nursing home in Wisconsin,” but did not mention the reason.
John Seigenthaler, a reporter who was covering the presidential campaign for the
was granted a rare interview with Joe Kennedy that July. “The story had just come out in
that Rosemary had been ‘mentally retarded,’” Seigenthaler recalled. “[Joe] said, ‘I don’t know what it is that makes eight
children shine like a dollar and another one dull. I guess it’s the hand of God. But we just do the best we can and try to help wherever we can.’” Eunice, Joe bragged to Seigenthaler, “knows more about helping the mentally retarded than any other individual in America.”
In November 1960, Jack Kennedy was elected president, defeating Richard Nixon of California in a hotly contested race. Winning by the narrowest of margins—a mere two-tenths of one percent of the popular vote—Kennedy became the youngest man and the first Catholic ever elected to the presidency. Less than a month later, the publication of the National Association for Retarded Children,
revealed in a photo caption that “the President elect has a mentally retarded sister who is in an institution in Wisconsin.”
A photograph of Jack Kennedy with the Pennsylvania branch president of the National Association for Retarded Children accompanied the statement on Rosemary. While there was no mention of Rosemary’s lobotomy, this was the first time a clear statement was made about Rosemary’s disability. The Kennedys, however, were still not ready to speak more openly about Rosemary’s condition, forcing NARC to issue a bulletin immediately to all its affiliates cautioning them to not repeat the information. “No capital should be made of this,” Elizabeth Boggs said was the message from NARC. The word was “that the family preferred not to have this, in fact, mentioned and we would respect their wishes in this matter as we would any other family’s wishes.”
UNICE SEIZED HER
opportunity once Jack was elected president. She persuaded her brother to establish the Committee on Mental Retardation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Though the National Insti
tutes of Health opposed a new institute on child health and development, on the grounds that it was unnecessary, heavy lobbying by the Shrivers, Dr. Cooke, and many others helped get the NICHD established by executive order within months of Kennedy’s taking office. At the behest of Joe, and through Eunice’s powerful insistence, the institute was soon followed by a commission to study intellectual and developmental disabilities of children. President Kennedy established the President’s Task Force on Health and Social Security and funneled resources into the moribund and obscure Department of Mental Retardation, then a small office within the Department of Education. Dr. Cooke was appointed to the commission, ensuring that the interests of children, in particular, would be well represented.
In the spring of 1961, an award-winning documentary film,
The Dark Corner,
about the treatment of mentally disabled people in Maryland, was shown at the White House. Written and narrated by journalist Rolf Hertsgaard and produced by WBAL-TV in Baltimore, the film had an enormous impact. By that summer, the twenty-seven-member President’s Panel on Mental Retardation got to work, and set a goal of delivering a report to the president within a year—a remarkably short amount of time, considering the enormity of the task.
The Shrivers had moved from Chicago to Maryland once Jack was elected president and after Sarge was appointed head of the newly created Peace Corps, one of President Kennedy’s first efforts, to call on the nation’s youth to volunteer two years of service offering technical, economic, and social resources to struggling communities around the globe. Focusing on the physical well-being of disabled children, Eunice remembered all those years that her mother and siblings had worked with Rosemary—playing tennis, swimming, sailing, running, and more—and how
important those activities were to Rosemary’s physical and emotional well-being. Eunice researched available programs offering such activities and found there were few, most of them sponsored by NARC, serving a small number of children across the country. Few children with intellectual disabilities were receiving any type of sports or fitness training, whether they were institutionalized, in school, or at home. Without wasting time, Eunice established Camp Shriver in the summer of 1961, a small day program for mentally handicapped and disadvantaged children on the Shriver estate, Timberlawn, in Maryland, where she hosted outdoor games and swimming. The camp was in full swing during the summer of 1962, pulling in volunteers from local colleges and universities to work as counselors for dozens of disabled children. Running, jumping, swimming, rope climbing, horseback riding, dancing, ball games, and more drew squeals of laughter from the children who attended the program.
ESS THAN A
year after Jack’s inauguration, on December 19, 1961, Joe Sr. had a stroke, paralyzing him and leaving him unable to communicate intelligibly. Wheelchair-bound and needing physical care until his death, eight years later, and unable to orchestrate and manipulate the careers, social aspirations, and political futures of his children, he suffered mutely as the world moved on. “He is still very vital and vigorous,” Rose noted in her diary in the spring of 1963, “about expressing his wishes and gets cross and impatient if we cannot understand him and if he is not handled properly. He uses his arm and his leg to push or whack the nurses.”
Joe, in his debilitated body, had now lost the ability to walk and speak, just as his powerless daughter once had.
During the fall of 1962, just before the highly anticipated President’s Panel on Mental Retardation report was due, the
urday Evening Post
published an article written by Eunice entitled “Hope for Retarded Children.” In it, Eunice revealed in detail the struggles her family faced trying to find ways to accommodate Rosemary’s many physical, intellectual, and emotional needs throughout childhood and young adulthood. “She was a beautiful child,” Eunice wrote, “but in early life Rosemary was different. She was slower to crawl . . . walk and speak.” Her parents, Eunice revealed, tried to keep her at home rather than institutionalize her. “Keeping a retarded child at home is difficult. Mother always said the greatest problem was to get other children to play with Rose and to find time to give her all the attention she needed and deserved.” The whole family worried about Rosemary—would some accident befall her, or would she get lost if she wandered away? When she was twenty-two, Eunice admitted, Rosemary’s behavior became more “irritable and difficult.” An institution where she could live “with others of her own capacity . . . where there was no need for ‘keeping up,’ or brooding over why she can’t join in activities as others do,” was the solution. Blending statistics on intellectual and developmental disabilities and acknowledging the lack of resources to help create “chances for useful lives” for the disabled, Eunice spelled out a vision for funding research, education, and vocational-training programs. The article delivered hope that with training, appropriate medical care, community support, and federal and private resources, people with disabilities could lead productive, happy, independent lives. Eunice, however, did not reveal that Rosemary had been subjected to a debilitating lobotomy.
On October 17, 1962, three days after the CIA discovered that the Soviets were building missile sites in Cuba, President Kennedy signed Public Law No. 87-838, authorizing the estab
lishment of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. The institute would focus exclusively on the “complex process of human development from conception to old age,” and would fund research into the causes of birth defects and intellectual and physical disabilities.
Five days later, just as the Cuban missile crisis was unfolding and a month after Eunice’s
Saturday Evening Post
article was published, the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation released its first report. In spite of being distracted by the “great gravity” of potential nuclear war, the president paid close attention to the pioneering document. Topping the list of recommendations were new laws to protect and provide for people with disabilities, a reorganization of federal agencies and offices to accommodate a new emphasis on the disabled, and funding for the new federal programs and initiatives.