WASHINGTON — Sketching impressive contributions to society in intensely personal terms, President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to more than a dozen political and cultural greats Tuesday, including rocker Bob Dylan, astronaut John Glenn and novelist Toni Morrison.
In awarding the nation's highest civilian honor to 13 recipients, living and dead, the president took note of the overflow crowd in the East Room and said it was "a testament to how cool this group is. Everybody wanted to check 'em out."
Obama then spoke of his personal connection to a number of this year's recipients, calling them "my heroes individually."
"I know how they impacted my life," the president said. He recalled reading Morrison's "Song of Solomon" in his youth and "not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think."
In college days, Obama said, he listened to Dylan and recalled "my world opening up, because he captured something about this country that was so vital." Dylan's appearance drew the biggest whoops from the crowd, and he dressed for the event — sunglasses, bow tie and black suit embellished with shiny buckles and buttons.
Obama also recalled reading about union pathbreaker Dolores Huerta when he was starting out as a community organizer.
"Everybody on this stage has marked my life in profound ways," he said.
Obama added that Pat Summitt, who led the University of Tennessee women's basketball team to more NCAA Final Four appearances than any other team, had helped pave the way for his two daughters, "who are tall and gifted."
"They're standing up straight and diving after loose balls and feeling confident and strong," he said. "I understand that the impact that these people have had extends beyond me. It will continue for generations to come."
The Medal of Freedom is presented to people who have made meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States, to world peace or to other significant endeavors.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold the job.
John Paul Stevens, former Supreme Court justice.
Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, who died in 1927.
Shimon Peres, president of Israel, who is to receive his medal at a White House dinner next month.
John Doar, who handled civil rights cases as assistant attorney general in the 1960s.
William Foege, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who helped lead the effort to eradicate smallpox.
Gordon Hirabayashi, who fought the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He died in January.
Jan Karski, a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. He died in 2000.
Huerta co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America. Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth. Dylan's vast catalog of songs includes such rock classics as "Like a Rolling Stone," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Mr. Tambourine Man."
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