- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A frail former President George H.W. Bush and a Cardinal red-jacketed Stan “the Man” Musial were among the honorees awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama on Tuesday, who hailed the 15 winners of the nation’s highest civilian award as “the best of who we are and who we aspire to be.”

“This is one of the things I most look forward to every year,” said Mr. Obama, addressing a packed East Room audience for a ceremony that was by turns jovial, somber and moving.

First awarded at the end of World War II, the Medal of Freedom is presented to individuals who have made exceptional contributions to national security, national interests, world peace, cultural or other significant endeavors.

This year’s recipients included artists such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, poet Maya Angelou and painter Jasper Johns; civil rights pioneers such as Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat; Hispanic activist Sylvia Mendez and Jewish Holocaust survivor and author Gerda Weissmann Klein; and athletes such as Mr. Musial and Boston Celtics basketball great Bill Russell — who had to stoop down as Mr. Obama reached up to drape the blue ribbon around his neck.

Two honorees were not at the ceremony — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who Mr. Obama said will be in Washington soon for a visit, and Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist who was killed by the Afghanistan’s Taliban in August along with nine co-workers returning from a humanitarian mission to provide vision care in the remote Parun Valley of Nuristan province of Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama remembered Dr. Little as “a humanitarian in the truest sense of the word, a man who not only dedicated his life to others, but who lived that lesson of Scripture: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’”

A teary-eyed Elizabeth Little, who worked with her husband on humanitarian medical missions for more than three decades, accepted the medal on his behalf.

Moving slowly and needing assistance to stand, a still-beaming Mr. Bush brought a poignant moment when the current president placed the Medal of Freedom around his neck. Mr. Obama noted his predecessor’s “life of service” beyond his White House years — as a war hero, diplomat, intelligence chief and humanitarian.

“His life is a testament that pubic service is a noble cause,” Mr. Obama said.

Similarly, the president noted that Mr. Russell’s achievements extended far beyond the basketball court. He noted the NBA great was also the first black coach of a major professional sport, winning two championships, and consistently stood up for equal rights and racial equality during his playing days.

The president relayed the story of Mrs. Klein, who as a young girl was separated from her parents and placed in several Nazi labor and concentration camps. She endured three years in the terrible conditions, and weighed 68 pounds when she was found in an old bicycle garage by U.S. forces.

Mr. Obama revealed that Mrs. Klein married the soldier who had found her, and went on to become a naturalized citizen and become a writer, historian and activist who promoted the virtues of tolerance.

Other recipients honored Tuesday included environmental advocate John H. Adams; legendary investor Warren Buffett; Jean Kennedy Smith, a former ambassador to Ireland; and former AFL-CIO head John Sweeney.

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