Receiving the Medal of Freedom, Celebrating an NRDC Team Victory
Posted February 18, 2011
This week, I had the extraordinary honor of receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. I accepted this honor on behalf of the people who really made it possible: the staff and supporters of NRDC. I am just lucky these dedicated people helped me live out my dream of standing up for nature.
The highlight of the day was having my wife Patricia, my children, and my eldest grandchild in the audience at the White House. They are the reason I got into this work. I didn’t want them to have to breathe dirty air, drink toxins in their water, or miss the chance to walk through untrammeled landscapes. Sometimes environmental policy can seem abstract, but in reality, these issues are as close and vivid as our families.
It was also wonderful to see my grandchild dotted upon by First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Barbara Bush. Everyone at the event was so welcoming, and it was a reward in itself to be in such remarkable company.
Congressman John Lewis, the great Civil Rights leader, also received the Medal of Freedom on Tuesday. Back when we started NRDC, we modeled our work on the Civil Rights Movement strategy of building a body of case law where no statutory law existed. But we never came under the kind of threat of harm Congressman Lewis and his allies did. He is truly a brave and fierce defender of justice.
But the recipients did not just include those focused on the law. As a life-long sports fan, it was a treat to meet basketball star Bill Russell and baseball star Stan Musial. Bill told me that the athletes he tends to stay in touch these days with are the ones involved in community building.
Stan, meanwhile, was one of the best hitters around and a real gentleman. He also happens to be a harmonica player. I was talking with him and Warren Buffet before the ceremony, and Buffet said, “Too bad I didn’t bring my ukulele. If you had your harmonica, and Yo Yo Ma brought his cello, we could be trio.” And with that, Stan pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and started playing old Mississippi River tunes.
The music didn’t end there. A quartet from a military band was playing at the reception. Yo Yo walked in, tapped the cellist on the shoulder, and stepped in to play. I thought the other musicians might faint, but they did a great job of keeping up.
During the reception, I had the opportunity to speak with Libby Little, who accepted the Medal of Freedom on behalf of her husband, Dr. Tom Little, who was killed while providing medical care to families in Afghanistan. The Littles had been working in Afghanistan for decades before Dr. Little and his colleagues were caught in an ambush.
The thing I will remember most from our conversation is that she said the FBI and the CIA are still trying to figure out who killed her husband and his colleagues, but identifying the culprits is not a concern of hers. She simply wants to continue the work of helping people. Her two daughters remain in Afghanistan, and together, they will carry on Dr. Little’s legacy. I was impressed by the power of their dedication.
I have had the good fortune to have been surrounded by remarkably dedicated people much of my life. After the event at the White House, my family and I headed over the NRDC’s Washington office to celebrate with the staff.
After I thanked everyone for such a lovely party, I took off the medal and said, “This is really yours,” and I passed it around the room so the people who did all the hard work could enjoy it.
NRDC’s staff members—past and present—have poured their hearts into fighting polluters, protecting wild places, and putting solutions in place. This medal is most definitely a team victory.
When I looked around the room at the NRDC office, I was struck by how many young people there are on our staff, and I felt so pleased that the work we are doing here—creating a cleaner future for all our grandchildren—will continue for decades to come.