WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama recognized the lives and works of 17 luminaries Tuesday at the White House by awarding them with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and Yogi Berra were among this year’s winners.
“Today we celebrate some extraordinary people, innovators, artists and leaders who’ve contributed to America’s strength as a nation,” Obama said to a packed East Room audience.
“We offer them our highest civilian honor,” he said.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor. The president awards this medal to individuals, Americans or foreigners, who have greatly contributed to the security or national interests of the U.S., peace, culture or other significant endeavors. The award can also be granted to military service members.
This year, Bonnie Caroll, an Air Force Reserve veteran, is one of the military recipients. She is the president and founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, nonprofit organization that provides around-the-clock support to military families. Winners Yogi Berra and Willie Mays both served in the U.S. armed forces.
Obama introduced Streisand as the singer known for having a voice described as liquid diamonds.
“She has sold more albums in America than any woman in history,” Obama said. Streisand teared up as she stood next to the president as he prepared to decorate her with the medal.
Obama also commended film director Spielberg’s cinematographic works and the USC Shoah Foundation he founded in 1994. It is a foundation, the president said, that lends a voice to survivors of genocide around the world.
The foundation’s Institute for Visual History and Education seeks to combat intolerance and bigotry through the use of visual testimonies of survivors of genocides. Its original goal was to record testimonies of Holocaust witnesses and survivors. The foundation garnered a collection of nearly 52,000 interviews.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom can also be awarded posthumously. Tuesday, four received awards after their deaths: Civil rights leader Minoru Yasui, African-American Democrat Shirley Chisholm, Indian treaty rights advocate Billy Frank Jr. and All-Star baseball player Yogi Berra.
“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,” Obama said.
Here is the list of winners of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom:
- Yogi Berra, St. Louis, who died in 2015 at age 90, was a professional baseball catcher, manager and coach. The 18-time All-Star, 13-time World Series Champion was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 and also earned a Purple Heart for his service in the Navy during World War II.
- Bonnie Caroll, an Air Force Reserve veteran, is the president and founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, non-profit organization that provides 24/7 support to military families.
- Shirley Chisholm, New York, who died in 2005 at age 80, was the first African-American woman elected to Congress. She represented New York’s 12th congressional district for seven terms and was the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
- Emilio Estefan, Cuban-American music producer and founding member of Miami Sound Machine, is a 19-time Grammy Award winner. After his career popularized Latin music, he was appointed by President George W. Bush as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
- Gloria Estefan, Cuban-American singer, songwriter, actor and entrepreneur, is one of the best-selling music artists of all time. She received seven Grammy Awards and sold more than 100 million records worldwide.
- Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually, Wash., who died in 2014 at age 83, was a Native American advocate for Indian treaty rights. During the fish wars of the 1960s and 1970s, he was arrested more than 50 times and later received the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Award for Humanitarian Achievement.
- Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., former U.S. representative., has more than 40 years of experience in international relations and national security. He served as vice chairman on the 9/11 Commission.
- Katherine Johnson, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., is a NASA mathematician whose work has influenced major space program such as the Mercury and Shuttle program. Her calculations for the 1961 trajectory of the flight of the first American in space showed exceptional technical skill in computerized celestial navigation.
- Willie Mays, Westfield, Ala., retired professional baseball player, ended his 22-season career with 660 home runs. In 1951, Mays was one of the first African-American players in the Major League Baseball. He also served in the U.S. Army.
- Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat, is the longest-serving female senator, and in 2012 became the longest serving woman in Congress. She was the first female senator to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee and worked to increase Pell Grants and student loans and to include women in federally funded health research protocols. She is not running for re-election next year.
- Itzhak Perlman, Israeli-American violinist, conductor and teacher, is a four-time Emmy Award and 16-time Grammy Award winner and received the 2008 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He now teaches young musicians through the Perlman Music Program and is an advocate for people with disabilities.
- William D. Ruckelshaus, Indianapolis, was the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and worked to ban the pesticide DDT. He later served as deputy attorney general. He refused to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, then resigned his office.
- Stephen Sondheim, American composer and lyricist, won eight Grammy Awards, eight Tony Awards, an Academy Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Sondheim now promotes young playwrights through Young Playwrights Inc., which he founded in 1981.
- Steven Spielberg, American film director, producer, philanthropist and entrepreneur, won three Academy Awards and is considered to be one of the most influential filmmakers in cinematic history. Spielberg founded USC Shoah Foundation in 1994 to combat intolerance.
- Barbra Streisand is one of the best-selling artists of all time. First known as a singer, she is the first woman to have won a Golden Globe for Best Director. She has received four Peabody Awards, two Academy Awards, 10 Grammys, five Emmys and a Tony, and helped create the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center to correct gender inequality.
- James Taylor, singer-songwriter, guitarist and a five-time Grammy Award winner, is one of the best-selling artists of all time with more than 100 million records sold worldwide. He was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
- Minoru Yasui, Hood River, Ore., who died in 1986 at age 70, was lawyer of Japanese descent who became a civil rights leader in Denver, when he challenged the constitutionality of internment camps created during World War II for Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants.
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