Honoring the extraordinary, President Obama doles out the 2010 Medals of Freedom
By Fran Holuba
The shimmering gold drapes of the East Room’s towering windows were a perfect backdrop for the lineup of extraordinary people seated along the South wall of the White House in anticipation of the handing out of the 2010 Medals of Freedom, which go to, as President Obama would explain, “the best of who we are and who we aspire to be.” Big shoes to fill indeed. But, this impressive bunch has succeeded in all walks of life. The honorees included:
- Congressman John Lewis
- Co-Founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, John H. Adams
- Poet, Maya Angelou
- Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Angela Merkel
- Business prodigy and philanthropist, Warren Buffett
- Artist, Jasper Johns
- Citizenship Counts founder, Gerda Weissmann Klein
- Humanitarian, Dr. Tom Little
- Celebrated musician Yo-Yo Ma
- Civil rights activist, Sylvia Mendez
- Baseball legend, Stan Musial
- VSA founder, Jean Kennedy Smith
- President Emertius of the AFL-CIO, John J. Sweeney
- Basketball player and human rights advocate, Bill Russell
- Former President George H.W. Bush.
President Obama’s remarks were playful, rousing the crowded room into laughter repeatedly. He joked that concert cellist Yo-Yo Ma was just 14 Grammy awards ahead of him and “Stan the Man” Musial shared the President’s nickname for his grandfather.
His praise of Warren Buffett was particularly heartwarming when he told the crowd, “I should point out he’s so thrifty I had to give him a White House tie the last time he came here to visit. His was looking a little shredded.” As one of the world’s richest men, it was Buffett’s reputation as a philanthropist and co-founder of The Giving Pledge that earned him the President’s warm approval.
If you’ve never placed a medal around the neck of a person who is 6’9”, President Obama can tell you it isn’t easy. Bill Russell
did his best to stoop down for the President, who enthusiastically spoke of Bill as a leader and an inspiration.
Compassion swelled as the President talked of Gerda Weissmann Klein’s survival in a Nazi concentration camp and subsequent marriage to the soldier who rescued her at 68 pounds in an abandoned bicycle factory. She recently founded Citizenship Counts, an organization educating students on the value of American citizenship. Overcoming adversity also transformed Maya Angelou into the powerful magician of language she commands today. President Obama shared that Maya Angelou’s poetic voice even influenced his own mother to name his sister Maya.
Other poignant recipients to receive America’s highest civilian honor included Congressman John Lewis and Sylvia Mendez.
John Lewis, the President explained, “faced down death so that all of us could share equally in the joys of life…And generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind — an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.” Reflecting on those words later in the James S. Brady press briefing room, John Lewis remarked that it was all he could do to keep from crying. He admitted, “I feel more than lucky-very blessed to receive this medal this honor from the first African American president.”When she was just a child, Sylvia Mendez and her family said no to the discrimination that denied her admission to the Westminster School due to her Mexican heritage. They fought peacefully through the democratic system and legally ended segregation in California. Their hard work instigated the historic case, Brown v. Board of Education, and opened Sylvia’s eyes to the discrimination pervading the United States. She has spent her life advocating for equality and tolerance. Next on her agenda is advocating for the DREAM act.
The two first ladies, sitting side by side, looked on smiling while President Obama awarded former President George H.W. Bush with his medal. The former first lady, in a bright pink jacket and fuchsia shawl, even managed to whip out her own digital camera and snap a few from the front row.
The star studded lineup enjoyed a tasteful reception in the entrance hall, mingling to the sounds of the Marine band posted just below the steps leading up to the residence and showing off their well-deserved gold stars.