JFK's sister, Special Olympics founder, dies at 88


June 18, 2010 Updated Aug 11, 2009 at 12:11 PM EDT

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of slain US president John F. Kennedy and founder of the Special Olympics, died Tuesday in Massachusetts, her family said. She was 88.

"The amazing Eunice Kennedy Shriver went home to God this morning at 2:00 am," said a statement from the family.

The statement called the devoutly Roman Catholic mother of five "the light of our lives" who "taught us by example, and with passion, what it means to live a faith driven life of love and service to others."

Members of Shriver's politically powerful family, including son-in-law California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, had bid farewell earlier Monday in visits to Cape Cod Hospital in the northeastern state.

Her husband, R. Sargent Shriver, all her children and 19 grandchildren were at her hospital bed as she died.

President Barack Obama said that he and his wife Michelle "were deeply saddened" by the news.

"Eunice was many things to many people," Obama said, but mainly "she will be remembered as the founder of the Special Olympics, as a champion for people with intellectual disabilities, and as an extraordinary woman who, as much as anyone, taught our nation -- and our world -- that no physical or mental barrier can restrain the power of the human spirit."

It was unclear whether her brother Senator Edward Kennedy, who is suffering from brain cancer, had been able to visit the hospital.

In a statement he remembered Eunice when she was "a young girl with great humor, sharp wit, and a boundless passion to make a difference."

Shriver "understood deeply the lesson our mother and father taught us -- much is expected of those to whom much has been given," the statement read. "Throughout her extraordinary life, she touched the lives of millions, and for Eunice that was never enough."

Shriver was admitted to hospital more than a week ago. Although the diagnosis was not revealed, she had suffered several strokes recently.

Shriver won lasting respect as a champion of the mentally disabled, a cause inspired by her experience of having a disabled sister, Rosemary.

Starting in 1962 with a summer camp at her home in Maryland, Shriver went on to build the Special Olympics into a major association that now counts almost three million athletes in more than 180 countries.

From 1971 the games were allowed by the US Olympic Committee to use the Olympics tag within the United States, and in 1988 they were given official international recognition as an Olympic event.

In 2007, China's city of Shanghai hosted the 12th Special Olympics World Summer Games with athletes from 164 countries.

Special Olympics president Brady Lum vowed in a statement "to work to bring her powerful vision to life to change the lives of those with intellectual disabilities."

In London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised Shriver for her "pioneering work for the Special Olympics" that "changed the lives of millions throughout the world.

"She will be mourned throughout the world. My thoughts are with her family," said Brown, in comments released by his office.

Shriver will also be remembered for being at the core of a family that for decades towered over the Democratic party, serving almost as American royalty.

She was sister to president John F. Kennedy, assassinated in 1963, and to Robert Kennedy, a senator who had served as attorney general and was assassinated in 1968.

With Shriver dead and her brother gravely ill, a whole era of US political life appears close to passing.

However, a new offshoot of the clan was born when Shriver's daughter, Maria, married Schwarzenegger, the former Hollywood action star best known for playing the "Terminator." He is now Republican governor in the most populous US state.

Eunice Kennedy was the fifth of nine Kennedy children. Edward and Jean Kennedy Smith are her surviving siblings.

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