For the final time in his presidency, Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, to 21 recipients at the White House on Tuesday.
Honorees included entertainers Tom Hanks and Diana Ross, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, architect Frank Gehry, scientist Margaret Hamilton, and athletes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and (a crying) Michael Jordan, whom Obama noted “was more than just an internet meme.”
The honor 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,” the White House said in a statement earlier this month in announcing the nominees.
Michael Jordan, at 53, was this year’s youngest medal recipient, while actress Cicely Tyson, at 91, was the oldest. All the recipients at the ceremony found time to oblige a request from Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of Diana, to pose for the Mannequin Challenge.
Ross, who won acclaim as part of the Motown group The Supremes and as a soloist also made her mark in acting. The Medal of Freedom will take up space on her award shelf alongside a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honor, a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and a Kennedy Center Honor.
De Niro, one of the most celebrated actors of his generation, claims two Oscars and a Kennedy Center Honor along with his new medal. De Niro is also a longtime progressive political activist.
Obama had a tricky time bestowing the Medal of Freedom upon the 7-foot-2 former NBA star. Post-NBA, Abdul-Jabbar has been a social justice advocate focusing on race, religion and fair pay.
Padron, president of Miami Dade College, has been a longtime advocate of inclusive, affordable quality education.
Helen H. Richardson/Getty
Cobell, who championed financial strength and independence of Native Americans, died in 2011.
Hanks can put his Medal of Freedom next to his zillion Oscars. (OK. Two.) As the White House notes, Hanks has also worked outside of acting as an environmental justice advocate and for American veterans.
Obama called the basketball legend "the best player on the two greatest teams of all time: The [U.S. Olympic] Dream Team and 1996 Chicago Bulls."
Michaels is best known as the creator of "Saturday Night Live" and has produced major comedy shows and films, including current late-night talk shows "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon" and "Late Night With Seth Meyers."
Known for her groundbreaking comedy and activism for LGBTQ people, DeGeneres' name apparently wasn't enough for White House security. The comedian tweeted that she almost missed out on the ceremony because she forgot
Springsteen, a blue-collar icon, has "helped shape American music" and "challenged us to realize the American dream," the White House said of the 12-time Grammy winner.
Best-known for roles in "All the President's Men" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," the legendary actor and director founded the Sundance Institute in 1981 to support independent filmmaking and has also been a longtime environmental activist.
Garwin, a physicist, "made pioneering contributions to U.S. defense and intelligence technologies, low-temperature and nuclear physics, detection of gravitational radiation, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computer systems, laser printing, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation," according to the White House.
A leader of modern architecture, Gehry's world-renowned creations include the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Pritzker Music Pavilion in Chicago, and 8 Spruce Street, originally known as Beekman Tower, in New York.
A leader in the computer science field, Hopper was known as “the first lady of software.” "Hopper’s work helped make coding languages more practical and accessible, and she created the first compiler, which translates source code from one language into another," the White House said.
Minow, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, pushed for "broadcasting that promoted the public interest," according the White House. He also has a special connection to Obama: Minow recruited Obama to work as a summer associate at the law firm where he met Michelle Obama. (Minow
also ran into the couple on their first date.)
Carlos Barria / Reuters
Bill Gates built his name and fortune as the co-founder of Microsoft, but it was his work -- along with wife, Melinda -- with the Gates Foundation that cemented the couple's legacy. Their philanthropy has focused on health and education and included the goal of wiping out malaria in their lifetime.
Carlos Barria / Reuters
An artist, Lin is perhaps best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The White House said, "A committed environmentalist, Lin is currently working on a multi-sited artwork/memorial, What is Missing?, bringing awareness to the planet's loss of habitat and biodiversity."
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images
Hamilton is best-known for leading the team that created the onboard flight software for NASA's Apollo moon missions. According to the White House, she "contributed to concepts of asynchronous software, priority scheduling and priority displays, and human-in-the-loop decision capability, which set the foundation for modern, ultra-reliable software design and engineering."
The Emmy- and Tony-winning actress at 91 was the oldest recipient at the ceremony. Tyson, who was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor in 2015, is best known for roles in "Sounder" and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman."
Scully spent 67 seasons as the voice of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Baseball Hall of Fame honoree called some of the most famous plays in baseball, including Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run.