Kennedy sister portrait features N.C. Special Olympian

Posted August 8, 2009 1:54 p.m. EDT
Updated August 8, 2009 3:07 p.m. EDT

— As relatives gather around Eunice Kennedy Shriver in a hospital, a North Carolina Special Olympian hails the sister of President John F. Kennedy as an inspiration.

A recently unveiled portrait in the Smithsonian National Portrait gallery places Marty Sheets, 56, of Greensboro, next to Shriver, who founded Special Olympics.

Sheets, who has Down syndrome, has competed in Special Olympics since it started 41 years ago. He met Shriver when competing in the first International Special Olympics Games in Chicago in 1968.

“Mrs. Shriver being chosen for this portrait is very fitting, and we are absolutely honored that Marty was included," Sheets' father, Dave, said in a release from Special Olympics North Carolina. “The world has changed for people with intellectual disabilities, and she spearheaded that.”

The portrait by David Lenz shows an elderly Shriver and five individuals with mental disabilities on a beach. The sky is clearing after a storm, and Shriver smiles at Sheets, who looks directly out at viewers from the foreground.

Other Special Olympians in the portrait are Airika Straka, of Wisconsin, Katie Meade, of Iowa, Andy Leonard, of Ohio, and Loretta Claiborne, of Pennsylvania.

It is the first portrait commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery that doesn't feature president or first lady. It is on display on the museum's second-floor rotunda and will become a part of the permanent collection.

"Our nephew Marty will be forever a national hero. This portrait of Eunice Kennedy Shriver is just breathtaking," Sheets' uncle and aunt, Bob and Jan Ferrone, wrote in an email to WRAL News.

Shriver was in critical condition at a Massachusetts hospital Saturday after suffering a series of strokes.

"She is loved by Marty," his uncle and aunt wrote. "Our prayers go out to her and her family."

Sheets has won more than 200 medals in Special Olympics competitions and served as a global messenger for the group. He sat with President Bill Clinton at the 1995 world games and has met world figures including Arthur Ashe and Evander Holyfield.

He was presented with North Carolina's highest civilian awarded – the Order of the Long Leaf Pine – by Gov. Jim Hunt and recognized as the 2006 PGA Tour Volunteer of the Year for his work with the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro.

Sheets is also the senior employee at a Macy's store. He has worked there for 36 years.