WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush presented the nation's highest civilian honor Friday to 10 distinguished individuals,including one of his former cabinet members and a legendary blues musician.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes achievement in public service,science,the arts,education,athletics and other fields,Bush said during the White House ceremony. “Today,we honor 10 exceptional individuals who have gained great admiration and respect throughout our country.”
The recipients were literacy advocate Ruth Johnson Colvin,Xavier University President Norman C. Francis,journalist Paul Johnson,musician Riley “B.B.” King,scientist Joshua Lederberg,historian David McCullough,former Transportation secretary Norman Y. Mineta,baseball legend John “Buck” O'Neil,journalist William Safire,and former Soviet Union prisoner Natan Sharansky.
All of the honorees accepted the medals in front of family and friends in the East Room,except O'Neil,who died in October at age 94. His brother,Warren O'Neil,91,accepted the medal in his place.
“Buck O'Neil was a legend and he was a beautiful human being,and we honor the memory of Buck O'Neil,” Bush said.
The president also proclaimed King – and his trademark guitar “Lucille” – legendary,saying,”Nobody has ever been able to match the skill or copy the sound of the king of the blues.”
At age 81,King continues to sing and record. “In other words,the thrill is not gone,” Bush said,alluding to King's 1970 song,”The Thrill Is Gone.”
Colvin,the only woman to receive the medal this year,began literacy campaigns around the world and is a friend of former first lady Barbara Bush. The president called her “a person of intelligence and vision and heart.”
Bush spoke briefly about each individual before tying a blue ribbon bearing the gold medal around his or her neck.
The recipients did not speak during the ceremony and were not available for comment afterward. They attended a reception at the White House.
President Harry Truman established the Medal of Freedom in 1945 to recognize civilians' efforts during World War II. President John F. Kennedy reinstated the award in 1963 to honor distinguished service.
About the 2006 Medal of Freedom recipients
Norman C. Francis
Francis was the first African American to graduate from Loyola University College of Law in 1955. He became president of his alma matter,Xavier University of Louisiana,in 1968 and still holds the position,making him the longest tenured leader of an American university who is seated. Francis has also helped Louisiana recover from Hurricane Katrina by serving as chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Although the hurricane damaged Xavier's campus,Francis vowed the university would reopen its doors by January 2006,and it did.
Ruth Johnson Colvin
Colvin began a network of reading tutors out of her basement in the early 1960s. That network soon grew beyond her hometown of Syracuse,N.Y.,and became the Literacy Volunteers of America. The nonprofit organization now has more than 330 programs in 42 states. Colvin has also traveled the world with her husband,Bob,teaching literacy and training teachers in Madagascar,Papua New Guinea,Zambia and China.
Renowned journalist and historian Johnson has written dozens of books,including “The History of the Jews,” “The History of Christianity” and “The Quest for God.” The British citizen first came to prominence in the 1950s while writing for,and later editing,New Statesman magazine. Johnson has also written columns for the Daily Mail and The Spectator,and contributed to the Daily Telegraph,the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Riley “B.B.” King
King became one of the most famous rhythm and blues musicians in the 1950s,and he has continued to tour and record. Between 1951 and 1985,King appeared on Billboard's R&B charts 74 times. Known for “You Know I Love You,” “Woke Up This Morning” and “Everyday I Have the Blues,” among many others,King has sold 40 million records,won 14 Grammy awards and performed more than 10,000 shows.
Lederburg's research has always been ahead of his time. He was studying genetics,space travel and biological warfare before the importance of those fields was understood. Lederburg won the Nobel Prize in 1958 for his research on bacterial genetics. He was also involved with artificial intelligence research and aided NASA's search for life on Mars. Lederburg served as a scientific adviser for several administrations and received the National Medal of Science in 1989.
Bestselling author and historian McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize twice,for his biographies “Truman” and “John Adams.” He is considered an expert on the American presidency and has served as president of the Society of American Historians. McCullough has written many other books over the past 40 years,and all remain in print. He has also hosted the public televisions shows “Smithsonian World” and “The American Experience” and narrated several others.
Norman Y. Mineta
Mineta is one of the most successful Asian American politicians in United States history. Although he was sent to live in a Japanese-American internment camp at the age of 10 during World War II,Mineta served the country as an Army intelligence officer,a California mayor and a member of the House. Mineta served as secretary of commerce under former president Bill Clinton and secretary of transportation under George W. Bush – the only Democratic cabinet secretary in the administration. Mineta resigned in July to join one of the world's largest public relations firms,Hill & Knowlton.
John “Buck” O'Neil
In 1962,O'Neil became the first African American to coach a major league baseball team. As coach of the Chicago Cubs,he trained future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks,Billy Williams and Lou Brock. He began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues in 1937,where he played on nine championship teams and starred in two Negro League World series. After leaving the Cubs,O'Neil became a scout for the Kansas City Royals and later helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. O'Neil died in October at 94.
Safire is a renowned author,journalist and former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon. The longtime syndicated columnist for the New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his commentary on alleged budgetary irregularities in the Carter administration. He wrote a farewell to his readers of his op-ed column in 2005 after more than 3,000 columns. He continues to write his weekly “On Language” column for the New York Times Magazine.
Growing up in Ukraine,Sharansky became a leading advocate for human rights under the Soviet regime after the government refused to allow him to immigrate to Israel. He was sentenced to a Soviet concentration camp for 10 years. He was exchanged for a pair of Soviet spies in 1986 and eventually immigrated to Israel,where he served in Israel's cabinet for eight years,including as former deputy prime minister.