WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 21 individuals, including artist and designer Maya Lin, on Nov. 22 at the White House.
The medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the U.S., to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
“The Presidential Medal of Freedom is not just our nation’s highest civilian honor — it’s a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better,” Obama said in announcing the recipients earlier this month. “From scientists, philanthropists, and public servants to activists, athletes, and artists, these 21 individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way.”
Lin is known for her work in sculpture and landscape art. As a senior at Yale, she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1981. Although there was resistance to the design, some of it based on her race, gender and age, the memorial is now a popular landmark that receives about 3 million visitors a year.
Since then, Lin has pursued a celebrated career in both art and architecture. Her other works include the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., and the Wave Field at the University of Michigan. She served on the selection jury of the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition.
A committed environmentalist, she is currently working on a multi-sited artwork/memorial, “What Is Missing?,” bringing awareness to the planet’s loss of habitat and biodiversity.
Lin previously met Obama when she received the National Medal of the Arts from him in 2009. She told NBC News that she was “speechless and so very, very honored” when she heard she was receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“When an undergraduate from rural Appalachia first set foot on the National Mall many years ago, she was trying to figure out a way to show war is not just a victory or a loss about individual lives,” Obama said at the ceremony. “She considered how the landscape might shape that message rather than the other way around. The project that Maya Lin designed for her class earned her a B-plus. And a permanent place in American history …
“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has changed the way we think about monuments, but also how we think about sacrifice, and patriotism, and ourselves. Maya has given us more than just places for remembering. She has created places for us to make new memories. Her sculptures, chapels, homes are physical acts of poetry, each reminding us that the most important element of art or architecture is human emotion.”
Other Asian American recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom include An Wang (business and economics, 1986), I.M. Pei (architecture, 1993), Fred Korematsu (civil rights, 1998), Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta (2006), Yo-Yo Ma (music, 2011); and, posthumously, Gordon Hirabayashi (civil rights, 2012), Sen. Daniel Inouye (2013), Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink (2014), and Minoru Yasui (civil rights, 2015).
The other 2016 recipients are:
• Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer who helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships and the Milwaukee Bucks to another.
• Elouise Cobell (posthumous), a Blackfeet tribal community leader and an advocate for Native American self-determination and financial independence.
• Ellen DeGeneres, an award-winning comedian who has hosted her popular daytime talk show since 2003 with her trademark humor, humility, and optimism.
• Robert De Niro, who has brought to life some of the most memorable roles in American film during a career that spans five decades.
• Richard Garwin, a polymath physicist who earned a Ph.D. under Enrico Fermi at age 21 and subsequently made pioneering contributions to U.S. defense and intelligence technologies.
• Bill and Melinda Gates, who established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 to help all people lead healthy, productive lives.
• Frank Gehry, one of the world’s leading architects, whose works have helped define contemporary architecture.
• Margaret H. Hamilton, who led the team that created the on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo command modules and lunar modules.
• Tom Hanks, one of the nation’s finest actors and filmmakers, who has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role five times and received the award twice.
• Rear Adm. Grace Hopper (posthumous), known as “Amazing Grace” and “the first lady of software,” who was at the forefront of computers and programming development from the 1940s through the 1980s.
• Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes of all time, who played 15 seasons in the NBA for the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards.
• Lorne Michaels, a producer and screenwriter best known for creating and producing “Saturday Night Live,” which has run continuously for more than 40 years.
• Newt Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President Kennedy and a vigorous advocate for broadcasting that promoted the public interest.
• Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College, one of the largest institutions of higher education in the United States.
• Robert Redford, an actor, director, producer, businessman, and environmentalist who founded the Sundance Institute to advance the work of independent filmmakers.
• Diana Ross, who has had an iconic career spanning more than 50 years within the entertainment industry in music, film, television, theater, and fashion.
• Vin Scully, a broadcaster who, for 67 seasons, was the voice of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers.
• Bruce Springsteen, a singer, songwriter, and bandleader who has helped shape American music for decades.
• Cicely Tyson, who has performed on the stage, television, and the silver screen, winning two Emmy Awards and a Tony Award.
To see the ceremony online, go to www.whitehouse.gov/campaign/medal-of-freedom.