August 24, 2009 12:00 PM

Given to puffing thin black cigars and speaking her mind, Eunice Shriver could be daunting. But as the fifth of nine children in the legendary Kennedy brood, Eunice was no more demanding of others than she was of herself. “If you don’t have an idea that materializes and changes a person’s life, then what have you got?” Shriver said in a 2006 interview. “You have talk.” The guiding idea in Shriver’s life was to open doors—athletic, medical, social—for people who, like her older sister Rosemary, struggled with a mental disability. To that end, in 1968 she launched the Special Olympics. There were 1,000 competitors; today, 3 million hopefuls from more than 180 countries vie to compete.

On August 11 Shriver, who in recent years had a series of strokes, died at age 88. During her final days at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass., she was surrounded by her husband of 56 years, former Vice Presidential candidate Sargent Shriver, 93, their five children, among them California First Lady Maria Shriver, 53, and all 19 grandkids. “Throughout her extraordinary life she touched the lives of millions, and for Eunice that was never enough,” her brother Sen. Ted Kennedy said in a statement. “… We will miss her deeply.”

Though awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor—in 1984 for her work on behalf of the mentally disabled, Shriver considered her greatest achievement to be raising her kids, all of them devoted to public service. With pride she once told the Baltimore Sun, “I think they’re wonderful in every way.”

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