14 others awarded medals for efforts

Bush among those with ties to Mass.

The recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom included former president George H.W. Bush. The recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom included former president George H.W. Bush. (Pablo Martinez Monsalves/Associated Press)
Associated Press / February 16, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Besides Celtics legend Bill Russell, 14 other Americans including former president George H.W. Bush were honored yesterday by President Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for contributions to society that he said speak to “who we are as a people.’’

This year’s recipients “reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be,’’ Obama said at a White House ceremony.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor. It is given in recognition of contributions to national security, world peace, culture, or other significant public or private endeavors. Yesterday’s medals were the second set Obama has awarded.

Several recipients other than Russell and Bush, who was born in Milton, have Massachusetts ties. World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a Harvard University graduate, lives in Cambridge when he’s not touring or teaching youths in classes and symposiums across the continents. Ma, a 16-time Grammy winner, was 7 when he played for President John F. Kennedy at the White House.

Jean Kennedy Smith, former ambassador to Ireland, is the last of the Kennedy family that included the president and senators Robert and Edward Kennedy. She founded VSA, a nonprofit organization that promotes the artistic talents of people with disabilities

Some of the loudest applause was reserved for Bush, the former Republican president who has devoted nearly 70 of his 86 years to public service, starting when he joined the Navy on his 18th birthday. He served as a congressman from Texas, UN ambassador, Republican Party chairman, US envoy to China, CIA director, a two-term vice president, and one term as the 41st president.

“His life is a testament that public service is a noble calling,’’ Obama said. Bush’s wife, Barbara, and their children listened from the front row.

Another robust round of applause went to Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia. Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize the first sit-ins at lunch counters that refused to serve blacks. In 1965, he led a march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and was nearly beaten to death along with others in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.’’

Lewis said later that the award was all the more special coming from Obama, the nation’s first black president.

“If someone had told me that one day I would be standing in the White House and an African-American president would be presenting me the Medal of Freedom I would say, ‘Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind?’ ’’ Lewis said.

A particularly touching moment occurred during the presentation for Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist who was murdered by the Taliban last August in Afghanistan. His wife, Libby, accepted.

The other medal recipients are:

■ John H. Adams, cofounder of Natural Resources Defense Council.

■ Maya Angelou, an author and poet.

■ Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.

■ Jasper Johns, an artist considered a major influence on pop, minimalist, and conceptual art.

■ Gerda Weissmann Klein, Holocaust survivor and author who founded Citizenship Counts, an organization that teaches students to cherish being American citizens.

■ Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent.

■ Angela Merkel, the first woman and first East German to serve as chancellor of a unified Germany. She did not attend.

■ Stan Musial, Hall of Fame baseball player who spent 22 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.

■ John J. Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO.