This month we are remembering Tom Songster, Ph.D., an early pioneer of the Special Olympics movement—known for his dedication and commitment to people with intellectual disabilities—and for helping develop Special Olympics into a leading global sports and humanitarian organization.
Tom Songster was known as “one of the few people” who, from the beginning, grasped Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s unique vision for Special Olympics. He began this work in 1968, as a founder of the Special Olympics Program in Indiana. Shriver soon brought him on as a staffer at Special Olympics International (SOI) headquarters in Washington, DC, where he took on many roles with the new organization. Tom Songster spent the next decades working with tenacity to see Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s vision come alive.
Retired since 2008, Tom Songster passed away recently at the age of 83.
A WIDE-RANGING LEGACY
He leaves behind an important legacy of coaching education and excellence, sports management, leadership, and program development.
A former cross-country and track athlete, Songster became a professor of Physical Education at Indiana State University. With his knowledge and passion for sports, he worked to train professionals in special education, physical education, and recreation to help people with disabilities. He began working with Special Olympics as the first and only volunteer Director for the state of Indiana in 1968. When Eunice Kennedy Shriver offered him the Director of Sports and Recreation position at SOI HQ in 1974, he accepted and moved to Washington, D.C.
“Whenever Tom’s name is mentioned in the circles of adapted physical education, people recognize him most for the creation of the first Special Olympics coaching guides, the foundation for educating our volunteer coaches. Tom traveled around the world and inspired many to join our movement. He became a true ambassador for Special Olympics, inspiring people all over the world to get involved.”
Songster played a leading role in the global expansion of Special Olympics by helping start Programs in many countries including China, Russia, Egypt, India, Turkey, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Argentina.
Songster was Special Olympics’ director of Sports Training and Competition for 20 years and, during that time, led the management of sports competition for each of the Special Olympics World Games from 1975 to 1995. In addition to a sports management legacy, Songster also leaves his imprint on the launching of Special Olympics Unified Sports®.
One of the practices that sets Special Olympics apart as a sports organization is our approach to divisioning and competition. Songster led the development of a strategy for that approach. He was instrumental in developing the Special Olympics General Rules, which provide the structure and the blueprint for creating new Programs, and the Sports Rules, which provide a guide to training and competition and are the model for mainstreaming our athletes into regular sports
He also played a key role in the development of the Healthy Athletes® initiative that was officially launched in 1997. Early on, he recognized that our athletes needed better access to health care and services—which would also improve their ability to train and to compete.
Over the years, Songster authored numerous articles, research documents and curriculum related to intellectual disabilities and sports. He received awards and recognition for accomplishments in the profession of physical education and sports, including the Paul Kersenbrock Humanitarian Award, the R. Tait McKenzie Award, and the PALAESTRA Leadership Award.
“Tom Songster worked with strength and purpose in the early years of the Special Olympics movement and although he is no longer with us, his presence is felt every day in our work. His legacy continues to shine brightly, guiding and inspiring all of us who follow in his footsteps.”