Hollywood and Broadway royalty are among the newest recipients of the nation’s highest civilian honor. Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Stephen Sondheim and 14 others will receive Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama during a November 24 ceremony at the White House. Other figures from the arts and culture worlds among this year’s honorees include violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman, singer-songwriter James Taylor and the Miami Sound Machine power couple of singer/songwriter Gloria Estefan and her husband, musician and producer Emilio Estefan, the subjects of On Your Feet!, a musical that opened last week on Broadway.
Baseball greats Yogi Berra, who died in September, and Willie Mays also will receive the award, which is presented to individuals “who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
“I look forward to presenting these 17 distinguished Americans with our nation’s highest civilian honor,” Obama said in a statement. “From public servants who helped us meet defining challenges of our time to artists who expanded our imaginations, from leaders who have made our union more perfect to athletes who have inspired millions of fans, these men and women have enriched our lives and helped define our shared experience as Americans.”
Here are the honorees, in alphabetical order with bios provided by the White House:
Yogi Berra (posthumous) spent over 40 years as a professional baseball catcher, manager, and coach. Widely regarded as one of the greatest catchers in baseball history – and an all-time Yankee great – Berra was an 18-time All-Star and 10-time World Series Champion who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. Always quick witted, Berra was famous for his “Yogi-isms,” teaching us all that we can observe a lot just by watching. Berra was also a lifelong ambassador for inclusion in sports. Berra put his professional career on hold to join the Navy during World War II, where he fought with Allied forces on D-Day and eventually earned a Purple Heart.
Bonnie Carroll is a life-long public servant who has devoted her life to caring for our military and veterans. After her husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll, died in an Army C-12 plane crash in 1992, Carroll founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which provides comprehensive support to those impacted by the death of their military hero, bringing healing comfort and compassionate care to the living legacies of our nation’s service and sacrifice. Carroll is also a retired Major in the Air Force Reserve. She serves on the Defense Health Board, and co-chaired the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide in the Armed Forces.
Shirley Chisholm (posthumous) made history in 1968 by becoming the first African-American woman elected to Congress, beginning seven terms in the House of Representatives. In 1969 she became one of the founding members of what would become the Congressional Black Caucus. Not satisfied, Chisholm went on to make history yet again, becoming the first major-party African-American female candidate to make a bid for the U.S. presidency when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972. She was a champion of minority education and employment opportunities throughout her tenure in Congress. After leaving Congress in 1983, Chisolm taught at Mount Holyoke College and frequently lectured and gave speeches at colleges and universities throughout the country.
Emilio Estefan is a passionate and visionary music producer, entrepreneur, author, and songwriter who has won nineteen Grammy Awards and influenced a generation of artists. As the founding member of the Miami Sound Machine, and later through a decades-long career producing and shaping the work of countless stars, Estefan has helped popularize Latin music around the world. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame and is an inductee to the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
Gloria Estefan is a singer, songwriter, actor and entrepreneur who helped introduce Latin music to a global audience. The Cuban-American lead singer of the Miami Sound Machine has had chart topping hits including “Conga,” “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” and “Anything for You.” Estefan has won seven Grammy Awards and is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 100 million records worldwide. She is an inductee to the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. Estefan became one of the first mainstream Hispanic artists to crossover between English and Spanish language music paving the way for countless other Latin artists to follow.
Billy Frank, Jr. (posthumous) was a tireless advocate for Indian treaty rights and environmental stewardship, whose activism paved the way for the “Boldt decision,” which reaffirmed tribal co-management of salmon resources in the state of Washington. Frank led effective “fish-ins,” which were modeled after sit-ins of the civil rights movement, during the tribal “fish wars” of the 1960s and 1970s. His magnetic personality and tireless advocacy over more than five decades made him a revered figure both domestically and abroad. Frank was the recipient of many awards, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award for Humanitarian Achievement. Frank left in his wake an Indian Country strengthened by greater sovereignty and a nation fortified by his example of service to one’s community, his humility, and his dedication to the principles of human rights and environmental sustainability.
Lee Hamilton has been one of the most influential voices on international relations and American national security over the course of his more than 40 year career. From 1965 to 1999, he served Indiana in the United States House of Representatives, where his chairmanships included the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran. Since retiring from Congress, Hamilton has been involved in efforts to address some of our nation’s most high profile homeland security and foreign policy challenges. He served as Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission and Co-Chairman of the Iraq Study Group. He was Co-Chairman of the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future, which issued a report in 2006 calling for reform of the nation’s immigration laws and system. And through the founding of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, he has also been a leading advocate for bi-partisanship and effective governance.
Katherine G. Johnson is a pioneer in American space history. A NASA mathematician, Johnson’s computations have influenced every major space program from Mercury through the Shuttle program. Johnson was hired as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA, after they opened hiring to African-Americans and women. Johnson exhibited exceptional technical leadership and is known especially for her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight (first American in space), the 1962 verification of the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer for John Glenn’s orbit (first American to orbit the earth), and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon. In her later NASA career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite and encouraged students to pursue careers in science and technology fields.
Willie Mays spent most of his 22 seasons as a center fielder for the New York and San Francisco Giants. He ended his career with 660 home runs, making him the fifth all-time record-holder. Known as “The Say Hey Kid,” Mays was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979 and landed on MLB’s All-Time team. In 1951, Mays won Major League Baseball’s Rookie of the Year award and in the 1954 World Series he led the Giants to a surprise victory, making one of the most spectacular plays in sports history, later known simply as “The Catch.” He has been a lifelong spokesman for and ambassador of professional baseball.
Barbara Mikulski is a lifelong public servant, who has held elected office since 1971. She became the longest serving female Senator in 2011, the longest serving woman in Congress in 2012, and the first female Senator to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee in 2012. Applying what she witnessed in her early career as a social worker and community activist in Baltimore, Maryland to her time in office, Senator Mikulski championed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and helped establish the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health to include women in federally-funded health research protocols. She also helped to make college more affordable by reforming and increasing Pell grants and student loans and wrote the law that prevents seniors from going bankrupt while paying for a spouse’s nursing home care. She championed investments in research and innovation, most notably saving the Hubble Space Telescope. She is dean of the bipartisan Senate women, serving as their mentor.
Itzhak Perlman is a treasured conductor and sought-after teacher. Among his many achievements are four Emmy Awards, 16 Grammy Awards, and the 2008 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was awarded a National Medal of Arts in 2000 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2003. A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18. In addition to performing internationally and recording the classical music for which he is best known, Perlman has also played jazz, including an album made with jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Perlman has been the soloist for a number of film scores such as Schindler’s List, which subsequently won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Alongside his wife Toby, Mr. Perlman teaches talented young musicians through the Perlman Music Program. Through his advocacy and his example, he has been an important voice on behalf of persons with disabilities.
William Ruckelshaus is a dedicated public servant who has worked tirelessly to protect public health and combat global challenges like climate change. As the first and fifth Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, he not only shaped the guiding principles of the agency, but also worked diligently to bring the public into the decision making process. Among the EPA’s key early achievements under his leadership was a nationwide ban on the pesticide DDT and an agreement with the automobile industry to require catalytic converters, which significantly reduced automobile pollution. He also demonstrated his commitment to public service and integrity as Deputy Attorney General. During the Watergate crisis, Ruckelshaus and Attorney General Elliot Richardson chose to resign rather than fire the Watergate special prosecutor. Their principled stance was a pivotal moment for the Justice Department and galvanized public opinion for upholding the rule of law. He continues to advance his legacy of collaborative problem solving in his current role at the University of Washington and Washington State University.
Stephen Sondheim is one of the country’s most influential theater composers and lyricists. His work has helped define American theater with shows such as Company, West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Parkwith George, and Into the Woods. Sondheim has received eight Grammy Awards, eight Tony Awards, an Academy Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Sondheim also founded Young Playwrights, Inc., to develop and promote the work of American playwrights aged 18 and younger.
Steven Spielberg is an American film director, producer, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. Spielberg’s films include blockbusters such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and the Indiana Jones series, as well as socially conscious works Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, and his newest film Bridge of Spies. A three-time Academy Award winner, Spielberg is widely considered one of the most influential filmmakers in cinematic history. His films have grossed over 8.5 billion dollars worldwide. Spielberg is the co-founder of DreamWorks Studios as well as the founder of the USC Shoah Foundation, an organization dedicated to overcoming intolerance and bigotry through the use of visual history testimony.
Barbra Streisand has a body of work comprising extraordinary singing, acting, directing, producing, songwriting, and she is one of the rare artists to have received an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony. Her performance in 1968’s Funny Girl endeared her to Americans for generations, and she won her first Academy Award for her role in that film. In 1984, she became the first woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Director, which she won for the motion picture Yentl. Streisand is also a recipient of four Peabody Awards, in addition to the National Medal of Arts and Kennedy Center Honors. In 2009, she endowed the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, which works to correct gender inequality in the research of a disease which each year kills more women than men.
James Taylor is a prodigious recording and touring artist, has touched people with his warm baritone voice and distinctive style of guitar-playing for more than 40 years, while setting a precedent to which countless young musicians have aspired. Over the course of his celebrated songwriting and performing career, Taylor has sold more than 100 million albums, earning gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards for classics ranging from Sweet Baby James in 1970 to October Road in 2002. In 2015 Taylor released Before This World, his first new studio album in 13 years, which earned him his first ever #1 album. He has won multiple Grammy awards and has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Minoru Yasui (posthumous) was a civil and human rights leader known for his continuous defense of the ideals of democracy embodied in our Constitution. A graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law, Yasui challenged the constitutionality of a military curfew order during World War II on the grounds of racial discrimination, and spent nine months in solitary confinement during the subsequent legal battle. In 1943, the Supreme Court upheld the military curfew order. Yasui spent the rest of his life appealing his wartime conviction. At the time of his death in 1986, he had successfully convinced a trial court to vacate his arrest, and a case challenging the constitutionality of his conviction was pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Yasui also spent his life fighting for the human and civil rights of all people.