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August 18, 09

NEWS / Obama Awards Medals of Freedom to Agents of Change

By Michael J. Bandler
Special Correspondent

Washington —There are men and women who — in President Obama’s words — believe that “our lives are what we make of them; that no barriers of race, gender or physical infirmity can restrain the human spirit; and that the truest test of a person’s life is what we do for one another.”

Sixteen such individuals, defined by the president as “agents of change,” received Presidential Medals of Freedom in an East Room White House ceremony August 12 — the first contingent to be honored by the 44th U.S. chief executive.

Each medalist, passionate and persistent in professional pursuits ranging from athletics to the arts, from politics and law to science and religion, represented “the difference we can make in the lives of others,” Obama said.

“At a moment when cynicism and doubt too often prevail, when our obligations to one another are too often forgotten, when the road ahead can seem too long or hard to tread, these extraordinary men and women — these agents of change — remind us that excellence is not beyond our abilities, that hope lies around the corner, and that justice can still be won in the forgotten corners of this world.”

The celebratory occasion was adorned by the presence of every living honoree (two awards were posthumous) except for the ailing Senator Edward M. Kennedy. The diverse group included Americans and non-Americans, Hispanics, African Americans and an American Indian chief, gay activists and a world-class scientist with a profound physical disability.

The 2009 honorees are:

• Nancy Goodman Brinker, who created the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure fund for breast cancer research, an organization that also has educated the public and removed stigmas relating to the disease, from which Susan Komen died.

• Dr. Pedro Jose Greer, whose chance encounter with a comatose homeless man led to the founding of Camillus Health Concern, a Miami clinic that offers care to more than 4,000 poor and homeless patients annually.

• Professor Stephen Hawking of Great Britain, who battled back from a rare disease to live and become one of the great theoretical physicists of contemporary science.

• Jack Kemp, the late Republican U.S. congressman, who was known for his bipartisanship as a legislator and as an advocate for and defender of civil rights.

• Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose four-decade-plus career in the U.S. Congress has been marked by tireless efforts in the fields of education, law and civil rights and health care, and as an advocate for the concerns of senior citizens, the military, workers and refugees.

• Billie Jean Moffitt King, tennis champion, who advanced globally the struggle for greater gender equality in an age of male-dominated sports.

• Reverend Joseph E. Lowery, “a giant of the Moses generation of civil rights leaders,” in the president’s words. As an ally of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

• Joseph Medicine Crow, the first member of his American Indian tribe to earn a postgraduate college degree, who, after serving valiantly in World War II, became a leading contributor to cultural and historical preservation.

• The late Harvey Milk, who, as one of the first openly gay Americans elected to public office, changed the landscape of opportunity for America’s gay community by fighting against discrimination.

• Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, who Obama said, “forged a new trail and built a bridge behind her for all young women to follow.”

• Sidney Poitier, film actor and director, the first African American to win a “best actor” Academy Award. In films such as The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Lilies of the Field, the citation said, he brought to black and white audiences alike “the common tragedy of racism, the inspiring possibility of reconciliation and the simple joys of everyday life.”

• Chita Rivera, Hispanic-American theatrical actress, singer and dancer, who inspired a generation of women to follow in her footsteps, not only as a performer, but also because — in the aftermath of a car accident that shattered her leg — she returned to the stage and won new honors for her craftsmanship.

• Mary Robinson, a pioneering crusader for women’s rights, who was the first woman elected president of Ireland, later going on to serve as U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

• Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, a trailblazing scientist who made a crucial medical breakthrough on leukemia and other cancers that advanced genetic research and understanding of the world’s most devastating diseases.

• Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu of South Africa, who helped lead his country through a turning point in modern history, sounding the rallying cry against apartheid, and later serving in a healing role as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “with an unshakable humility and firm commitment to our common humanity,” the citation read.

• Professor Muhamad Yunus, the Bangladesh-born Nobel economics laureate, who revolutionized banking by enabling citizens of the world’s poorest countries to create profitable businesses, support their families, and help build sustainable communities.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award in the United States. It was established in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman to honor civilian service during World War II, and first presented a year later. More than 250 individuals have received the honor.




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