In decades of reporting, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eileen McNamara encountered various members of the storied Kennedy family.
She was surprised to see a major newspaper misidentify Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics program for people with intellectual disabilities.
Curious, McNamara started researching Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Finding no biography of her, McNamara spent seven years researching her and the influence she had on the world and on her politician brothers, President John F. Kennedy Jr., U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
In April 2018, McNamara published â€œEunice, the Kennedy Who Changed the World.â€�
McNamara will be talking about the book at a 4:30 p.m. reception Friday at St. Christopherâ€™s Episcopal Church, 625 Main St., Chatham. Tickets, at $15, are available on the church website, stchristopherschatham.org, or at the door.
Now director of journalism at Brandeis University, McNamara answered questions from the Cape Cod Times this week in an email interview.
Q: In the bookâ€™s introduction, you speak of wanting to tell Euniceâ€™s story, which had been overshadowed by all the attention given to her brothers. How did you come to Euniceâ€™s story? Was it something that brewed over the years of newspaper coverage or was there a precipitating event?
A: Mrs. Shriver died two weeks before her brother, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, in August 2009. Although both deaths received prominent news coverage, I was struck by a correction that appeared in The New York Times soon thereafter. In captions accompanying the family photographs illustrating the obituaries, the newspaper of record had misidentified, or failed to identify, many of the Kennedy sisters. Having been a journalist at The Boston Globe for almost 30 years, I had some idea of all that Eunice Kennedy Shriver had accomplished in her life and I was, frankly, amazed that she was not better known. I was even more stunned to learn that a biography of her had never been written.
Q: In researching the book, what surprised you about Eunice?
A: How often she recognized major social problems long before her more celebrated brothers. It was Eunice who led a task force on juvenile delinquency for the U.S. Justice Department in 1947, 15 years before she convinced Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to put that issue on his agenda. It was Eunice who ran a summer camp for children with intellectual disabilities at her estate in then largely segregated Maryland and opened her pool and her playing fields to black and white children alike, a year before President John F. Kennedy introduced civil rights legislation. It was Eunice who convinced JFK to establish a research Institute for Child Health and Human Development at the National Institute of Health, recognizing before many in the medical establishment that children were not simply “small adults.” It was Eunice who championed the needs of women in prison when she worked at the Federal Penitentiary for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, in 1950, more than two decades before Sen. Edward M. Kennedy took up their cause on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Q: Do you have ties to the Cape or islands? How did you end up agreeing to speak at St. Christopher’s?
A: I am delighted to talk about Mrs. Shriver’s remarkable legacy wherever I am invited. It is always special to talk about her on the Cape, a place that meant so much to her.
Q: You write of the social constraints put on women during much of Euniceâ€™s life. If Eunice had been born 50 years later, do you think she would have run for office?
A: No. Although she held in highest esteem those who were elected to public office, she would have made a terrible candidate in any era. She was constitutionally incapable of pandering. The qualities that made her such an extraordinary advocate â€” relentless energy, exacting standards, a demanding and impatient personality â€” might well have alienated voters. It certainly alienated a lot of her secretaries.
Q: Did you get a sense of what the Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport meant to Eunice?
A: She lived in London when her father was the ambassador to Great Britain, in Paris when her husband was the ambassador to France, in Washington for most of her professional life. But Hyannisport was home for Eunice Kennedy Shriver. It is where she forged her iron will, in touch football games, in sailing races, on the tennis court and the golf links. It is where she and her siblings gathered and reconnected once they were adults and where she reared her five children to revere the place as much as she did.
Q: Did telling Euniceâ€™s story leave any lasting impact on you and your experiences as a female longtime journalist?
A: It underscored for me just how easy it is to write women out of history. Had she only founded Special Olympics, an international organization changing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities around the globe, she would have made an indelible mark. But she did so much more than that, leaving her imprint on everything from special education legislation to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Q: What were some of the differences between researching Euniceâ€™s story and research for the commentary work?
A: Time. I spent seven years researching Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s life, interviewing her family and colleagues, visiting archives and schools she attended from London to Palo Alto and working my way through 33 boxes of her private papers that her children allowed me to read. Daily journalism, by contrast, is a deadline business; you always wish you had one more hour to make one more call.
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