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President Reagan presented National Medal of Arts to seven...

WASHINGTON -- President Reagan presented National Medal of Arts to seven American artists and four long-time patrons of the arts Thursday at a lavish luncheon ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

The winners of the third annual awards for outstanding contributions to arts in the United States included singer Ella Fitzgerald, Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, the nation's first poet-laureate Robert Penn Warren and philanthropist Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum.

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In a brief speech before presenting the medals, Reagan -- who during lunch was flanked by Fitzgerald and another winner, Richmond, Va., philanthropist Sydney Lewis -- evoked the Constitution and the founding fathers, saying they viewed the arts as 'an essential element' to building a new nation.

'The arts and the humanities teach us who we are and what we can be,' Reagan said. 'They lie at the very core of the culture of which we are a part and they provide the foundation by which we may reach out to other cultures.'

Reagan then handed out the 11 sterling silver medals -- imprinted with six dancing figures and the words 'National Medal of Arts,' with the recipient's name inscribed on the back -- as Nancy Reagan read off a list of the winners, along with brief biographies.

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While reading, she stumbled over several words and had trouble pronouncing the names of Howard Nemerov, author of 23 books; choreagrapher Alwin Nikolais and Noguchi.

'I seem to be having trouble with my words,' she said, turning to her husband after hesitating on the word 'philanthropist.'

Reagan looked at her quizzically but she smiled reassuringly.

Other winners were painter Romare Bearden, composer William Schuman and philanthropists J.W. Fisher and his wife, Frances.

Warren and Hammer did not attend.

During the presentation, guests sitting at the 12 tables adorned with pink peonies and white fresia gave the longest and loudest applause to Fitzgerald, who Nancy Reagan introduced as the 'first lady of song.'

After the ceremony, Mrs. Reagan kissed Fitzgerald on the cheek.

Outside the White House, Fitzgerald told reporters that when she was starting her career she never dreamed she would receive such an award.

'I'm just so thrilled today, sitting right next to the president,' Fitzgerald said. 'This has been a big lift.'

Nemerov said he was going to wear his medal around his neck.

Nicholai, who said he has 'a wall full of awards' and sported the French Legion of Honor ribbon in his lapel, proclaimed, 'This is the one I'm most proud of.'

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Nominations for the awards, which were authorized by an act of Congress in 1984 upon Reagan's recommendation, are gathered by the National Endowment for the Arts, and approved by the National Council on the Arts. A list of the most highly qualified candidates is then forwarded to Reagan.

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