Loretta Lynn among Medal of Freedom honorees at White House


WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor Wednesday to 16 Americans, including former Custer, Wash., resident and country music legend Loretta Lynn, in a star-studded and often poignant celebration at the White House.

Former President Bill Clinton, iconic talk show host Oprah Winfrey and the first American woman to fly in space, the late astronaut Sally Ride, were among the leaders of sports, politics, science and the arts to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In a 45-minute ceremony in the ornate East Room, Obama paid tribute to each recipient. Lynn, he said, emerged as one of the first successful female country music vocalists in the early 1960s, but only after receiving 17 blue ribbons at the Northwest Washington Fair for her canned vegetables.

Though known for her Kentucky roots, Lynn lived in Whatcom County for 11 years - from 1950, when she was 14 and pregnant, until 1961, soon after she recorded her first hit, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl."

While her husband, Mooney, found jobs, she had three more kids, cooked, cleaned, and when she had a bit of spare time, practiced on her $17 guitar and sang along to the radio at their Custer home.

In 1960, she sang on stage for the first time, at the Delta Grange hall. Lynn has performed several times at the Northwest Washington Fair.

"Her first guitar cost $17, and with it this coal miner's daughter gave voice to a generation, singing what no one wanted to talk about and saying what no one wanted to think about," Obama said Wednesday. "Now, over 50 years after she cut her first record — and canned her first vegetables — Loretta Lynn still reigns as the rule-breaking, record-setting queen of country music."

Obama helped Lynn, 81, to the front of the stage and gave her a shoulder to lean on as a military aide read a list of her accomplishments as a singer, songwriter and author. Then, Obama fastened a dark-blue ribbon with a white star around her neck before she slowly walked back to her seat, where she blew kisses to the audience.

First lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, as well as members of Congress and guests including movie director Steven Spielberg, were in the audience. Clinton's wife, former Secretary of State and possible presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea, were seated at the front of the crowded room.

The Medal of Freedom is given to those 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," according to the White House.

"These are the men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives inside of all of us," Obama said.

In holding the event Wednesday, Obama honored the legacy of President John F. Kennedy, who established the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago this week in Dallas, two weeks before he could honor the inaugural class of 31 recipients. Instead, President Lyndon Johnson presided over the ceremony at the White House the same day Kennedy's family moved out.

"I hope we carry away from this a reminder of what JFK understood to be the essence of the American spirit," Obama said. "Some of us may be less talented, but we all have the opportunity to serve and to open people's hearts and minds in our smaller orbits."

Others honored Wednesday: former Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, known as "Mr. Cub;" former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee; the late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii; Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University scholar of psychology; former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar; chemist and environmental scientist Mario Molina; the late civil rights leader Bayard Rustin; jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer Arturo Sandoval; former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith; writer and activist Gloria Steinem; civil rights leader Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian; and Patricia Wald, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Inouye's wife stood in for him while Ride and Rustin, the other two posthumously honored, in part for helping break down gay barriers, were represented by their partners. Smith, who is suffering from a neurological disorder, was not able to attend.

Most of the loudest applause was reserved for Clinton, who since leaving the White House has raised money to help in the aftermath of natural disasters and created a foundation to improve health, economies and the environment across the globe.

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01

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