Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eunice Kennedy Shriver: A numismatic legacy to accompany the Special Olympics

Aug. 12, 2009
Posted by John Dale

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the seemingly tireless social campaigner who became best known for her association with the Special Olympics, died yesterday at age 88.

Throughout her life she accrued numerous honors, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984. Beyond any personal interactions with her — and the number of people her work has touched is incalculable — numismatists have noted her for a different honor, one included in the obituaries published by a variety of news sources, including CNN: in 1995, her portrait appeared on a commemorative coin, a silver dollar dated 1995 designed to raise money for the Special Olympics. She was the first woman to appear on a U.S. coin during her lifetime.

Her appearance on the Special Olympics dollar was controversial in its time and remains so even today. By tradition, living persons do not appear on U.S. coinage. In 1866, a law was passed that prohibited the printing of a living person on U.S. “currency,” but this has been interpreted to mean strictly paper money and not all “current money” of the United States.

Only a handful of people had appeared on U.S. coins before Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Thomas E. Kilby, governor of Alabama during that state’s centennial, was the first, with his portrait appearing on a commemorative half dollar in 1921. President Calvin Coolidge followed in 1926, as did Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, whose hometown of Lynchburg received a commemorative half dollar in 1936. The last to be so honored before Eunice Kennedy Shriver was Senator Joseph T. Robertson of Arkansas, who appeared on Arkansas-themed half dollars that were struck in 1937 but dated 1936.

Opponents of the Special Olympics dollar, and particularly the portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, argued against it. There was the argument from tradition, that a living person should not have the honor of appearing on a coin, though when one considers that she had already received the nation’s highest official civilian award more than a decade earlier, she had a strong case to be an exception to the rule.

The argument from alleged revisionist history stated that calling Eunice Kennedy Shriver “Founder” of the Special Olympics unfairly slighted Anne McGlone Burke, though this argument dismisses the idea that more than one person could have been instrumental in the creation of the Special Olympics, and there is little doubt that Eunice Kennedy Shriver was one of its great motive forces.

The argument about nepotism was a bit thornier, in that her nephew, United States Representative Joseph F. Kennedy II, sponsored the bill creating the Special Olympics dollar and shepherded it through the House. There was also the argument from aesthetics; in both 1995 and more recent years, collectors and critics have kvetched about the portrait on the dollar, with criticism of it as “unflattering” being common. Her unintentional numismatic legacy is that later coin legislation, such as that authorizing the Statehood quarters and the Presidential dollars, specified that living persons could not appear in designs.

For all the arguments and complaints, though, the Special Olympics dollar was struck and coin history was made. Even though the Special Olympics dollars were not especially popular at the time of issue, they have picked up some luster recently; in Heritage’s August 2009 Los Angeles U.S. Coin Auction, we offered a pair of Special Olympics dollars rated as being in perfect condition by PCGS, with the MS70 coin bringing $276 and the PR70 Deep Cameo coin realizing $322. Eunice Kennedy Shriver may have passed, but with her appearance on the Special Olympics dollar, her memory achieved coinage immortality.

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-John Dale Beety

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