Barbra Streisand, Willie Mays among Medal of Freedom recipients

By Amy R. Connolly  |  Nov. 25, 2015 at 8:06 AM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom on Tuesday to 17 people from varying backgrounds, from entertainers to scientists, who left an indelible mark on American history.

Singer-actress Barbra Streisand, NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, filmmaker Steven Spielberg and recently deceased baseball star Yogi Berra were among those honored by Obama with the nation's highest civilian honor during a White House ceremony.

"We are just reminded when we see these individuals here on the stage what an incredible tapestry this country is," Obama said during the White House ceremony. "And what a great blessing to be in a nation where individuals as diverse, from as wildly different backgrounds, can help to shape our dreams, how we live together, help define justice and freedom and love. They represent what's best in us, and we are very, very proud to be able to celebrate them here today."

Among those honored were also those who made a difference without garnering great fame, including Bonnie Carroll, who founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors after her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, died in a 1992 military plane crash and Katherine G. Johnson, a NASA mathematician who opened the door for women and African-Americans.

The president also awarded the medal to Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, of Maryland, the longest serving woman in Congress and Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress.

"Shirley Chisholm's example transcends her life. And when asked how she'd like to be remembered, she had an answer, ' I'd like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.' And I'm proud to say it: Shirley Chisholm had guts," Obama said.

Among the other recipients are:

-- Emilio Estefan and Gloria Estefan -- This husband and wife team were each medal winners for breaking cultural boundaries to "elevate the accomplishments of Latin Americans," Obama said.

-- Billy Frank Jr. -- A Native American activist who "devoted his life to protecting the rights of Native Americans and to conserving our planet." He died in 2014 at age 83.

=- Lee Hamilton -- A former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Indiana and current member of the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Council. Obama said, Hamilton has "helped steer the course of American history in a spirit of bipartisanship, and he continues to strengthen the homeland and promote diplomacy."

-- Willie Mays -- The famed baseball player "stepped into the history books as a two-time MVP with 660 career home runs and 24 all-star appearances. Along the way, the 'Say Hey Kid' captured hearts across America," Obama said.

-- Itzhak Perlman -- Considered on of the greatest violinists of modern times, Perlman has "brought joy to millions, inspired countless new artists and earned adoration from global audiences," Obama said.

-- William Ruckelshaus -- The first head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Ruckelhaus "continues to place principle over politics, continuing his lifetime of advocacy on behalf of our nation and our planet," Obama said.

-- Stephen Sondheim -- As an acclaimed lyricist and composer, Sondheim's work "has forever left his mark on the American stage," Obama said.

-- Steven Spielberg -- The influential filmmaker has brought "entire universes to life, broadened our horizons and ushered iconic American characters into being," Obama said, adding his Shoah Foundation has helped thousands recount their stories from the Holocaust and other genocides.

-- Barbra Streisand -- The actress/singer has used "her extraordinary voice to bring life to the range and humor of the human experience," Obama said, adding her philanthropic work "encourages others to use their own voices to make a difference."

-- James Taylor -- The musician was honored for using "the power of music to enrich our nation and the world. From longing and love to loss and renewal, his intimate songwriting captures the heart of the human experience," Obama said.

-- Minoru Yasui -- As a recent law school graduate at the height of World War II, this Japanese American "devoted his life to fighting for basic human rights and the fair and equal treatment of every American. In challenging the military curfew placed on Japanese Americans during World War II, he brought critical attention to the issue, and paved the way for all Americans to stand as full and equal citizens," Obama said.

-- Yogi Berra -- The baseball legend and Purple Heart recipient guided the New York Yankees "with a wisdom that lives in our national consciousness, and taught us all that we can observe a lot just by watching," Obama said.

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