By Kristin McMurran
August 27, 1979 12:00 PM

It’s a shame she wasn’t a man, because she’d make a great President.

—Ethel Kennedy on Eunice Shriver

The morning was dark with rain and the playing fields were sodden as teams from as far away as Yugoslavia and Samoa arrived at the State University of New York College at Brockport to compete in the fifth international Special Olympics for retarded children and adults. But in the general sog, the fervor of the event’s creator, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was undampened. “What you are winning by your courageous efforts is far greater than any game,” she boomed to the 3,500 contestants in a voice that swelled with emotion. “You are winning life itself, and in doing so you give to others a most precious prize—faith in the unlimited possibilities of the human spirit.” If the words were a trifle hackneyed, the delivery was compelling. It was the same ringing oratory that had led little brother Teddy to wisecrack in 1976: “I’m not supporting anybody before the convention, but if Eunice should decide to run, I might have to reconsider.”

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, 58, is the unsung Kennedy—a woman related to the last generation of Democratic political history by birthright, marriage and her own ambition. Her success two weeks ago at attracting a lustrous celebrity cast to the unheard-of hamlet of Brockport, N.Y. surprised no one who knows her well. During JFK’s term in the White House, she was a trusted and often-consulted adviser; and her tireless campaigning for her brothers and her husband, 1972 vice-presidential candidate Sargent Shriver, has earned her a reputation for political drive and acuity unsurpassed even by the professionals in the family. She makes no secret that she would happily pitch in if Teddy ran—and some family observers predict she could offset his alienation from wife Joan as a surrogate campaign companion. If nominated, Eunice would serve well. “Mum really likes going out and campaigning,” says son Bobby, 25, a Yale law student. “Many people don’t like endless streams of cookies and handshakes, but she loves to go into people’s kitchens and talk to them about their children. She likes the game aspect of politics.”

The fifth of the nine Kennedy children, Eunice came by her drive naturally. “We don’t want any losers around here,” her father used to say. “In this family we want winners. Don’t come in second or third—that doesn’t count. Win.” After graduation from Stanford, she moved to Washington, where she roomed with brother Jack, a neophyte congressman, met a young Newsweek editorial assistant named Sargent Shriver—and kept him dangling for eight years while she pursued a career working with juvenile delinquents. As volunteer proofreader of the memos she drafted at home, “Dad used to chase her around the desk,” relates son Mark, 15. “He’d refuse to punctuate until he got a kiss.” Sargent (then pet-named “Toughie”) remembers Eunice as “a hard sell. None of her brothers was married, so it was very hard to cut one from the herd.”

Eunice succumbed to the blandishments of the Maryland aristocrat in 1953 and became Mrs. R. Sargent Shriver Jr. in a suitably grandiose wedding at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. The Shrivers proceeded quickly to have five children (besides Bobby and Mark, they are Maria, 23, a Baltimore television producer; Timothy, 19, a junior at Yale, and Anthony, 14). All seem sincerely devoted to their parents—though they are still subject to the strict Kennedy regimen. Says Bobby: “She loves to call me at 7 a.m. One of her favorite expressions is, ‘Get up; get on to yourself.’ I’ve never really known what that means.”

Wife-and-motherhood was never Eunice’s sole occupation. While Sarge worked as an executive of Joe Kennedy’s Merchandise Mart in Chicago, Eunice kept a hand in Kennedy politics by campaigning for her brother Jack—then moved to Washington when the New Frontier was opened. Her roles as President’s counselor and wife of the Peace Corps’ founding director failed to satisfy her, so in 1961 she started a summer camp for retarded children on the grounds of the family’s rented Maryland estate. (Though her older sister, Rosemary, is retarded and Eunice has always been close to her, she insists that this was a minor factor in her thinking.) The camp led to a nationwide campaign for physical fitness for the retarded—”It didn’t hurt to have a brother in the White House,” Shriver confesses—and, in 1968, to the Olympics. “There was no great research,” she says. “We just adapted things that normal people do.”

The Special Olympics—which now boasts 15,000 local programs and paid directors in most states—would be enough to keep anyone else occupied full-time, but Eunice still finds time for a full roster of Kennedyesque activities. They include visiting her mother (often thrice a day), sailing (almost every day), tennis (continually) and, when she feels playful, dragging guests—and the family dogs—from the stern of her 25-foot boat Headstart at top speed. When Maria brought her boyfriend, bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, home to Hyannis Port, Eunice took him for a drag. “I think she wanted to see how tough he really was,” says Bobby with a laugh. “He swallowed about a gallon of water.”

There is a faint warp of flakiness in the Kennedy fabric, and Eunice has her full measure. As son Anthony puts it: “Daddy is more diplomatic and Mummy is more wacko. In the car, when she’s talking she can drive straight through five lights.” Before she was to be interviewed on TV at a movie premiere, Eunice realized that her new Halston gown didn’t fit quite properly, so she grabbed a passing stranger, dragooned her into the ladies’ room and swapped dresses. Neither the woman nor the custom-made Halston was ever seen again.

Life at the Shriver households in Hyannis Port and Washington is chronically frenetic, teeming with the comings and goings of the kids, their eight Labrador retrievers and a steady stream of visitors. “She really loves the people who have the least,” says Sargent, and Maria recalls coming home one night during final exams to find that 10 retarded kids were having a slumber party there. It’s not just compassion, the family says—Eunice thrives on the frantic pace. “A weekend at the Shrivers is like helping out at the Special Olympics,” observes Art Buchwald. “You never know what you’re doing.”

Behind her driven life is a fiercely competitive spirit. Marvels Sarge: “I’ve never known a woman who tried so hard to beat the hell out of a man on the tennis court.” Eunice’s self-description oozes stoicism. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’ve had a terribly tragic life,” she says, though she’s lost two siblings to assassination and two in plane accidents. “Compared to people who live every day of their life under terrific strain, the truth is that I’ve had a rather easy life.”

As if to compensate, she pushes herself and others hard. “She has a way of making people exceed their reach,” says Ted, the younger brother Eunice helped to prod through childhood while the older Kennedy boys were in the service. Now, as Ted wonders how long his reach really is, he no doubt feels his big sister looking over his shoulder, pushing him one more time to extend it.