RALEIGH, N.C. -- Singer Kate Smith, whose rendition of 'God Bless America' helped sell millions of dollars in war bonds during World War II, received the Medal of Freedom Tuesday from President Reagan.
'Her voice has earned her a place in the history of this country,' Reagan said before presenting the nation's highest civilian award at a private ceremony attended by about 60 people. 'Kate always sang from her heart and we always listened with our hearts.'
The 75-year-old former radio and television performer, confined to a wheelchair after suffering a diabetic coma and several strokes, did not speak.
But her sister, Helena Steene of Raleigh, thanked the president, and said of Miss Smith: 'She is one of the greatest people I have ever known. She has always lived for her country.'
Miss Smith is the 209th recipient of the presidential medal, given to those contributing to national security, world peace or other endeavors.
While Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., knelt by her wheelchair and held Miss Smith's hand, Reagan said her rendition of 'God Bless America' moved soldiers in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam.
'Those simple and deeply moving words, God Bless America, have taken on extra meaning because of the way she sang them,' the president said. 'In giving us a magnificent, selfless talent like Kate Smith's, God has blessed America.'
Miss Smith was dressed in a black dress and fur wrap for the occasion. Her niece, Kathryn Rodriguez, said the ex-singer was deeply moved. After achieving stardom on Broadway in 1926, Miss Smith shifted to network radio where the theme song of the 'Kate Smith Hour' was 'When the Moon Comes over the Mountain.'
Her voice was clear and sweet, her diction perfect, and her ever-cheerful disposition made Americans smile.
But her career was faltering until Irving Berlin wrote 'God Bless America' in 1940, as America geared for war, and provided the vehicle for a major comeback.
Kate Smith was born May 1, 1907, in Greenville, Va. She was overweight throughout her career but it never seemed to worry either her or her fans.
Miss Smith had diabetes, and her heath began declining in 1976.
Her first major public appearance in several years came last month, when she appeared on the Emmy Awards show to join in singing 'God Bless America.'
Since its inception under President Truman, the Medal of Freedom has gone to such figures as Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King, Bob Hope and Pablo Casals. The latest recipient before Miss Smith was Reagan's Middle East negotiator, Philip Habib.