January 17, 2008

Eunice Kennedy Shriver to receive honorary degree

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Eunice Kennedy Shriver, long a champion of those with intellectual disabilities and the driving force behind the creation of Special Olympics, will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Education and Human Services during its commencement ceremony May 10.

The SIU Board of Trustees voted to confer the degree, which honors accomplishments benefiting society or outstanding scholarship, during its regular meeting today (Jan. 17) in Edwardsville.

For Shriver, it will be a homecoming of sorts. Although the Massachusetts native earned her bachelor's degree from Stanford University during the 1960s, she attended summer courses at SIUC taught by the late William H. Freeberg, founder of an innovative camping program for the mentally challenged. Known these days as Camp Little Giant, this nationally recognized program provides such traditional camp experiences as boating, swimming, arts and crafts, and other outdoor activities to impaired children and young people with the aim of boosting both confidence and independence.

"Eunice Kennedy Shriver embodies the inspiring words of her brother, Robert F. Kennedy, when he said, 'There are those who look at things as the way they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask why not?'" said college Dean Kenneth Teitelbaum.

"As a university, and as a college related to education and human services, we do ourselves proud by recognizing her contributions with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree."

Now executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, which focuses on helping people with intellectual disabilities, Shriver joined that organization in 1957. She and the Foundation played key roles in the creation of the President Kennedy Committee on Mental Retardation, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, expanded research facilities and centers dealing with intellectual disabilities and medical ethics and, in 1968, the establishment of Special Olympics, which has become a year-round, world-wide sports training and competition program for athletes young and old.

"Her groundbreaking work with Special Olympics, from its start and through the next 40 some years, has helped to change the way we look at and treat people with disabilities," Teitelbaum said.

"She has helped all of us to better understand that all people have strengths and talents to be appreciated as well as weaknesses that do not have to function as obstacles to experiencing an enjoyable and productive life. As a society we owe a great debt of gratitude to Eunice Kennedy Shriver for her decades of humanitarian work."

Shriver's many honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America's top civilian award), the Legion of Honor (France's highest honor), the Prix de la Couronne Français, and the Mary Woodard Lasker Award for Public Service. She has 14 honorary degrees, awarded by such universities as Yale, Princeton and Georgetown.