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15 receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

Feb. 15, 2011 at 7:40 PM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- Former President George H.W. Bush, poet Maya Angelou, and sports greats Stan Musial and Bill Russell received the highest U.S. civilian award Tuesday.

They joined 11 others Tuesday at the White House in receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- which recognizes people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." The other recipients include civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., visual artist Jasper Johns and billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the White House said.

President Barack Obama also gave the award, not limited to U.S. citizens, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French-born U.S. cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Auschwitz concentration-camp survivor and humanitarian Gerda Weissmann Klein. Rounding out the list are labor leader John J. Sweeney, civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, former diplomat and Very Special Arts non-profit founder Jean Kennedy Smith, and Natural Resources Defense Council founder John H. Adams.

Optometrist Tom Little -- who led a humanitarian eye camp in Afghanistan before being killed with nine other humanitarians Aug. 6, allegedly by Taliban fighters -- received the award posthumously.

"President Kennedy once said, during a tribute to the poet Robert Frost, that a nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces, but by the men and women that it honors; the people that it remembers," Obama said at the ceremony. "I heartily agree. When you look at the men and women who are here today, it says something about who we are as a people. … This year's Medal of Freedom recipients reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be."

Bush, president from 1989 to 1993, was vice president under Ronald Reagan and CIA director. He also served as U.S. ambassador to China and the United Nations, and was the U.S. Navy's youngest aviator during World War II.

Angelou, called "America's most visible black female autobiographer" by scholar Joanne Braxton, is best known for her six autobiographical volumes that focus on her childhood and early adult experiences.

Musial, a Baseball Hall of Famer and record 24-time all-star selection, played 22 seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals, accumulating 3,630 hits and 475 home runs.

Russell, who played center for the Boston Celtics, "almost single-handedly redefined the game of basketball," the White House said. He also was the first black coach of a major U.S. sport.

Lewis, serving in the House since 1987, was head of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, playing a key role in ending segregation, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington.

Johns, the first visual artist to win the national honor in 34 years, is best known for his 1954-1955 American flag painting. His subject matter often includes images and objects from popular culture.

Buffett, sometimes called the "Oracle of Omaha," is one of the world's most successful investors and a notable philanthropist, pledging to give away 99 percent of his fortune.

Merkel is Germany's first female chancellor and the first Eastern German to lead the reunified country. Ma is considered the world's greatest living cellist. Klein is recognized for sharing a powerful message of hope, inspiration, love and humanity.

Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO, worked his way up the labor movement from jobs as a domestic worker and bus driver. Mendez played an instrumental role at age 8 in a landmark 1946 desegregation case that paved the way for the U.S. civil rights movement.

Smith, sister of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, is a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland who founded VSA to help people with disabilities engage with the arts. Adams' 41-year tenure as an environmental leader "is unparalleled," the White House said.

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