‘Today we celebrate extraordinary Americans’

President Obama presented 21 Americans with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on November 22.

They include some of the most famous names in sports, entertainment and philanthropy, ranging from basketball great Michael Jordan to musician Bruce Springsteen to philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates.

“Today we celebrate extraordinary Americans who have lifted our spirits, strengthened our union, pushed us towards progress,” Obama said in a ceremony at the White House.

“I always love doing this event,” the president said, describing the 2016 class of honorees as “innovators and artists, public servants, rabble-rousers, athletes [and] renowned character actors.”

The medal is awarded “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.”

Sports and entertainment

From the world of sports, the new honorees include basketball stars Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul Jabbar for their work on and off the court.

Professional baseball announcer Vin Scully, known as the “Voice of the Dodgers,” wanted to make sure there was no mistake when he got the call that he was being honored. “Are you sure? I’m just an old baseball announcer.” Scully has been announcing professional baseball games on the radio for 67 years, first when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, New York, then in Los Angeles, where the team moved.

Tom Hanks smiling (© AP Images)
Actor Tom Hanks was honored for his “indelible mark on American film” and for his work with veterans. (© AP Images)

Cicely Tyson, Robert Redford, Robert De Niro and Tom Hanks were among actors honored. “It’s quite a group of people,” Academy Award–winner Hanks said. “I’m just a dumb kid from Oakland, California. I don’t know how any of this happened.”

Ellen DeGeneres, the comedian and talk show host, took to Twitter after she got word she was an honoree.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Springsteen and Diana Ross also were honored for their decades of music and performances.

Lorne Michaels, producer and screenwriter best known for his decades of work on the late night TV show Saturday Night Live, was another medal recipient.

Science and technology

Among the pioneers in science and technology honored was Richard Garwin, a physicist who worked on everything from designing the first hydrogen bomb to MRI machines to laser printers and touch-screen monitors. He also served as a policy adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy.

Woman reclining under computer panel (© AP Images)
Margaret Hamilton in 1969 sitting in a mockup of the Apollo command module. She created software for it. (© AP Images)

Another honoree, computer scientist and mathematician Margaret Hamilton, helped write the code for NASA’s Apollo command modules and lunar modules that put a human on the moon.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who died in 1992, helped create computer programming as we know it, making coding languages more practical and accessible.

Art and architecture

Vietnam War Memorial early in morning (© AP Images)
Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was honored for her work in art and architecture. (© AP Images)

Maya Lin told NBC News that she was “speechless and so very, very honored” when she heard the news. She designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

Architect Frank Gehry, known for his instantly recognizable buildings such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, also was named.

Public service and philanthropists

Dr. Eduardo J. Padron, president of Miami-Dade College, is “still in disbelief,” he told 7 News Miami. “For someone like me, who came to this country as an immigrant, as an adolescent with no knowledge of the culture, the language and no money, to be at a point in my life when the president of the greatest nation in the world is acknowledging my work, I’m touched.” Padron was honored for being “a national voice for access and inclusion.”

Bill and Melinda Gates were honored for their philanthropic work on global health and poverty issues though the Gates Foundation. Their foundation has provided more than $36 billion in grants since its inception.

Newton Minow, a lawyer who helped shape television as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for President Kennedy, also was honored.

Woman standing in front of oil rig (© AP Images)
Elouise Cobell, seen here in front of an oil well on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near Browning, Montana, in 1999. (© AP Images)

Elouise Cobell, a leader of the Blackfeet Nation, was honored posthumously for her work for Native American self-determination. Cobell, who died in 2011, had used her accounting expertise to champion a lawsuit that resulted in restoring tribal homelands to Blackfeet Nation and many other tribes. Her efforts “inspired a new generation of Native Americans to fight for the rights of others,” the White House said.