Gina Mei
November 25, 2015 10:22 am

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama honored 17 exemplary humans with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the most prestigious civilian award given in the United States. According to the White House’s website, the award 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.” Which is to say, it’s a pretty big deal to receive it.

In the past, the honor has been given to everyone from Meryl Streep to Maya Angelou, and its recipients always represent the diverse range of what our country has to offer in all verticals of life. This year was no exception, and each winner was incredibly well-deserving. Here’s what you need to know about them.

Yogi Berra

MLB legend Yogi Berra spent over four decades in professional baseball as a catcher, manager, and coach; and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. He is easily one of the best-known professional baseball players of all time, and got his well-deserved reputation during his career as catcher for the Yankees. Outside of the league, Berra earned a Purple Heart for his time spent in the Navy during World War II; and always fought for diverse inclusion in sports.

Bonnie Carroll

After the death of her husband, Brigadier General Tom Caroll, Bonnie Caroll founded the Tragedy Assistant Program for Survivors (TAPS) in order to offer support and resources to others who have lost a loved one in the military. Along with TAPS, Caroll has dedicated her life to supporting the Armed Forces and U.S. veterans, including serving as co-chair for the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide in the Armed Forces.

Shirley Chisholm

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress, where she served for seven terms. Later in life, she became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the first major-party Black female to run for president. Suffice to say, she was a total badass and a champion for diverse representation in U.S. politics. After retiring from Congress, Chisolm went on to teach at Mount Holyoke College.

Emilio Estefan

Legendary music producer and songwriter Emilio Estefan is responsible for bringing Latin music to the mainstream — and he has the 19 Grammy Awards to prove it. Along with being a founding member of the Miami Sound Machine, Estefan was appointed a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2002 by George W. Bush. He also happens to be married to fellow 2015 Medal of Freedom recipient, Gloria Estefan!

Gloria Estefan

Music powerhouse Gloria Estefan is a triple threat: Singer, songwriter, actor. Along with her husband, the lead singer of the Miami Sound Machine helped popularize Latin music on mainstream radio, and became one of the first Cuban-American musical artists to find success with both English and Spanish music. The seven-time Grammy Award winner also happens to be one of the top-selling musicians of all time — and has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Billy Frank Jr.

A member of the Nisqually tribe, Billy Frank, Jr., was a lifelong activist and champion for Native American rights, in particular around environmental politics and the management of natural resources. As a recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award for Humanitarian Achievement, Frank proved that his efforts were well-deserving of recognition; and the world is all the better for it to this day.

Lee Hamilton

Whether or not you know his name, Lee Hamilton has one of the most impressive careers in politics of anyone alive today. Hamilton represented Indiana in the United States House of Representatives from 1965 to 1999 — an outstanding career of more than 40 years — and served as chairman on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, amongst many others. Since then, Hamilton has been an advocate for immigration and foreign policy reform, and involved in pushes for changes in homeland security.

Katherine G. Johnson

For those who don’t know, Katherine G. Johnson served as a physicist and mathematician for NASA, paving the way for space exploration and proving women have a definitive place in STEM. (Duh.) In case you aren’t already impressed, she calculated the trajectories for multiple flights to space, including the first time an American went to space (1961), Project Mercury, and Apollo 11 — aka the first time an American went to the moon. Later in her career, she also worked on the Space Shuttle Program.

Willie Mays

Another MLB legend, Willie Mays — aka The Say Hey Kid — was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, the first year he was eligible. He played center fielder for 22 seasons, and has the fifth most home runs of any professional baseball player ever. Along with his obvious skills, Mays was also one of the first Black players in the MLB, and shares the record for most All-Star Games played and most Gold Glove awards.

Barbara Mikulski

Barbara Mikulski is our favorite kind of record breaker: She’s the longest-serving female in the history of the United States Congress, and the longest-serving female Senator. Earlier this year, she announced that she would retire in 2017 — but what she’s accomplished in the meantime is not to be ignored. As a major player for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and a founding supporter of the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, Mikulski has paved the way for gender equality in U.S. politics. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We couldn’t be more grateful for all of her contributions.

Itzhak Perlman

I’m biased. From the age of four, I’ve played the violin — and I’ve been lucky enough to see (and hear) the magic of Itzhak Perlman live. He is one of the most gifted violinists and conductors of our time, with numerous awards to prove it — including 16 Grammy Awards and four Emmys. He made his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 18; and his television debut at 13 on the Ed Sullivan Show. While not originally from the U.S., Perlman has made substantial contributions to American culture, including as a soloist for multiple film scores and prolific music teacher for young musicians.

William Ruckelshaus

As the first ever head of the Environmental Protection Agency and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, William Ruckelshaus has had a busy career in politics. (He’s one of the key people responsible for the U.S. ban on DDT! Shout-out to anyone else who took AP Environmental Science.) Ruckelshaus also served as Deputy Attorney General, and famously resigned after the Watergate scandal.

Stephen Sondheim

The father of modern musicals, Stephen Sondheim will likely go down in history as one of the most pivotal figures in musical theater. Responsible for everything from West Side Story to Sweeney Todd to Into the Woods, the composer and lyricist has perfect the art of musical theater and turned it into a next-level art form. Sondheim has received eight Grammy Awards, eight Tony Awards, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer, and the Laurence Olivier Award. To this day, he remains dedicated to helping young American playwrights promote and perfect their work.

Steven Spielberg

Easily one of the most recognizable names in film, Steven Spielberg is responsible for some of the greatest movies of all time. (Apparently, IMDb agrees.) The filmmaker has tackled both over-the-top blockbusters and nuanced, award-winning dramas — and the world is all the better for his art. Whether Jurassic ParkIndiana JonesSaving Private Ryan, or Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s influence on cinema is obvious, and his voice is considered one of the most distinct that Hollywood has to offer.

Barbra Streisand

Does Barbra Streisand even need an introduction? As one of the few people in the world to ever get the coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony), there’s no denying that Streisand is an incomparable gift. Along with being a karaoke favorite, Streisand has proved time and time again that she’s a force to be reckoned with. She was the first woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Director (for Yentl), and has received four, well-deserved Peabody Awards throughout her career.

James Taylor

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, and I couldn’t be happier to see James Taylor receive the Medal of Freedom. (Sorry.) As an inductee to both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Taylor is widely regarded as one of the most distinct and talented musicians of the past century. He also happens to be one of the best selling musical artists of all time — and a five-time Grammy winner.

Minoru Yasui

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Minoru Yasui fought tirelessly against racial discrimination targeted at Japanese-Americans. He was the first person to file a case testing the constitutionality of World War II curfews, and was ordered to spend months in solitary confinement as a result. The lawyer dedicated his life to civil rights and racial equality, and his contributions remain essential to this day.

(Image via Shutterstock.)

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