Eunice Kennedy Shriver died Monday night. She was the sister of the Kennedy brothers, John, Robert, and Ted. Wife of Sargent Shriver, the first head of the Peace Corps and the vice presidential candidate on the ill-fated McGovern ticket in 1972. Founder of the Special Olympics. Mother of Maria. And she and I had lunch and spent the day together thirty-three years ago this month.
Well, it wasn’t exactly just Eunice and me. Back then, I was spending part of my summer working in beautiful Williamstown, Massachusetts, way up in the northwest corner of the state, up in the Berkshire Mountains. I’d gone to Williams College and was working with James MacGregor Burns, a former professor of mine. He’d won a couple of Pulitzers for his books on FDR and was the real-life character that the younger professor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was based on. He was also a friend of the Kennedy family.
When I say I was working with Burns, what I meant was that I was taking the summer off from grad school at Harvard and was working on his house—fixing the outside entrance to his cellar, repairing his chimney and fireplace, but mostly keeping my friend Peter, his stepson who’d dropped out of a succession of schools, company. I was studying political science and Burns delighted in presiding over lunches at his gorgeous house, overlooking the valley down where the New England college town could be seen, quizzing us on some aspect of history trivia. Another Williams student, a young Michael Beschloss, would come up every now and then to kiss up to the great man, and Peter and I would mercilessly make fun of him at those lunches. Guess who’s laughing now.
Anyhow, Peter and I spent much of our time playing music together and one day the old man pulled us aside, saying we’d be visited by some important folks later that week, and he’d like it if we could play our guitars and entertain them. The guests? Teddy Kennedy and all of the extended Kennedy children, including John’s and Bobby’s, on a weekend family outing to western MA.
Truth be told, we did practice Bridge Over Troubled Water but never really had the nerve to actually play it once the Kennedys arrived. And they arrived in style. Late one morning, the world’s largest recreational vehicle pulled up the dirt driveway leading to the Burns’s country estate, and out came maybe twenty kids from the extended Kennedy clan, followed by Teddy, his first wife Joan, and his sisters Joan, Patricia Lawford, and Eunice.
The kids immediately occupied themselves in a wide variety of games—volleyball, frisbee, soccer. Two news crews from the local Pittsfield affiliates covered all the action. My memory was that Peter and I stood out in a field, guitars around our necks, and banged out a few bluegrass songs, accompanied by our mostly out of tune singing. We were ignored by all of the kids except Teddy, Jr., whose leg had been amputated and couldn’t engage in the physical frenzy all around us. Somewhere in the basement of a news station, I bet there’s an old videotape of us singing on that August morning.
Then we were summoned into the house for lunch with the adults. Joan was already tipsy. Blonde, thin, and gorgeous, she was also bitter and sarcastic. The more she drank, the less Teddy talked, aside from chatting quietly with Burns about state politics. Patricia, ten years divorced from her actor ex-husband, didn’t talk at all.
But Eunice Shriver was just delightful. None of her talk was about politics. Instead she talked about the trip with all the children and their day renting a nearby amusement park just for themselves. She asked questions about what we did. She had a beautiful smile and, as opposed to everyone else there, seemed happy and content.
And then suddenly, the visit was over. Everyone piled into the huge RV, followed by the news crews, and they were gone. It was quiet again, like the visit hadn’t really happened.
Okay, so it wasn’t much of a connection but it was a nice memory. The first one I had when I woke and heard the news that Eunice Shriver had passed away.
Paul Stekler is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.