President John F Kennedy's sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who carried on the family's public service tradition by founding the Special Olympics and championing rights of mentally disabled people, died early today surrounded by relatives at a Hyannis hospital. She was 88.
Ms Shriver had suffered a series of strokes in recent years and died at Cape Cod Hospital, her family said in a statement. Her husband, her five children and all 19 of her grandchildren were by her side, the statement said.
"She was the light of our lives, a mother, wife, grandmother, sister and aunt who taught us by example and with passion what it means to live a faith-driven life of love and service to others," the family said.
The hospital is near the Kennedy family compound, where her sole surviving brother, Senator Edward Kennedy, has been battling a brain tumour.
Senator Kennedy said his earliest memory of his sister was as a young girl "with great humour, sharp wit, and a boundless passion to make a difference.
"She understood deeply the lesson our mother and father taught us - much is expected of those to whom much has been given," he said in a statement. "Throughout her extraordinary life, she touched the lives of millions, and for Eunice that was never enough."
President Barack Obama said Ms Shriver will be remembered 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".
As celebrity, social worker and activist, Ms Shriver was credited with transforming America's view of the mentally disabled from institutionalised patients to friends, neighbours and athletes. Her efforts were inspired in part by the struggles of her mentally disabled sister, Rosemary.
Peter Collier, author of The Kennedys, an American Drama, called Eunice Shriver the "moral force" of the Kennedy family.
"We have always been honoured to share our mother with people of good will the world over who believe, as she did, that there is no limit to the human spirit," her family members said in the statement.
Shriver was also the sister of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the wife of 1972 vice presidential candidate and former Peace Corps director R. Sargent Shriver, and the mother of former NBC newswoman Maria Shriver, who is married to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
With Eunice Shriver's death, Jean Kennedy Smith becomes the last surviving Kennedy daughter.
Mr Schwarzenegger said his mother-in-law "changed my life by raising such a fantastic daughter, and by putting me on the path to service, starting with drafting me as a coach for the Special Olympics."
When her brother was in the White House, she pressed for efforts to help troubled young people and the mentally disabled. And in 1968, she started what would become the world's largest athletic competition for mentally disabled children and adults. Now, more than 1 million athletes in more than 160 countries participate in Special Olympics meets each year.
"When the full judgment on the Kennedy legacy is made - including JFK's Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, Robert Kennedy's passion for civil rights and Ted Kennedy's efforts on health care, work place reform and refugees - the changes wrought by Eunice Shriver may well be seen as the most consequential," Harrison Rainie, author of Growing Up Kennedy, wrote in US News & World Report in 1993.
It was Shriver who revealed the condition of her sister Rosemary to the nation during her brother's presidency.
Rosemary Kennedy underwent a lobotomy when she was 23 lived most of her life in an institution in Wisconsin and died in 2005 at age 86.
Well into her 70s, Ms Shriver remained a daily presence at the Special Olympics headquarters in Washington.
"Today we celebrate the life of a woman who had the vision to create our movement," said Special Olympics president Brady Lum.
"In her memory, we will continue to work to bring her powerful vision to life to change the lives of those with intellectual disabilities, their families and communities, using sports as the catalyst for respect, acceptance and inclusion."
Shriver was born in Brookline, the fifth of nine children to Joseph Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. She earned a sociology degree from Stanford University in 1943 after graduating from a British boarding school while her father served as ambassador to England.
In 1953, she married Mr Shriver. He became JFK's first director of the Peace Corps, was George McGovern's vice-presidential running mate in 1972, and ran for president himself briefly in 1976.