Obama Honors Dylan With Medal of Freedom


Bob Dylan made his hometowns of Duluth and Hibbing proud Tuesday as he received the nation's highest civilian honor alongside the likes of astronaut John Glenn and novelist Toni Morrison.

In awarding the Medal of Freedom to 13 recipients, living and dead, President Obama took note of the overflow crowd in the East Room of the White House and said it was "a testament to how cool this group is. Everybody wanted to check 'em out."

Dylan's appearance drew the biggest whoops from the crowd, and he dressed for the event -- sunglasses, bow tie and black suit embellished with shiny buckles and buttons.

Observers back in the Northland said the award is validation of the cultural impact Dylan has had over the years.

"I think it's really cool that Dylan is listed alongside people like John Glenn and these great American figures," said Aaron Brown, a coordinator for Hibbing's annual Dylan Days festival. "On a more personal level, for a Duluth-born, Hibbing-raised (person) to get an honor like this -- it's a testament to the area we're from. As far as I know, he's the first Duluth-Iron Ranger to get the Medal of Freedom."

Obama spoke of his personal connection to a number of this year's recipients, calling them "my heroes individually."

"I know how they impacted my life," the president said. He recalled reading Morrison's "Song of Solomon" in his youth and "not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think."

Of Dylan, he noted, "There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. All these years later, he's still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth, and I have to say that I am a really big fan." Dylan sat impassively, behind sunglasses.

In college days, Obama said, he listened to Dylan and recalled "my world opening up, because he captured something about this country that was so vital."

LeRoy Hoikkala, who played drums in the trio the Golden Chords with Dylan in high school, said he has watched the folk singer collect accolades from afar.

"I'm proud of him," Hoikkala said. "Everything he got, he earned. He had no help from anybody else."

Hoikkala, of Hibbing, described young Dylan as "independent, patient and restless," and said he can see the high school version of Dylan still present in the current version.

"Basically he doesn't pretend," he said. "Everything he says and does, whether it's good or bad, he's always himself."

Brown said that while there has in the past been a distance between Hibbing's understanding of the musician and Dylan's understanding of the town where he was raised, that this is a time to celebrate him.

"Speaking for Hibbing a little bit, this is a moment to really reflect that Bob Dylan had something to do with Hibbing and Hibbing had something to do with Bob Dylan. I'm proud to see him do as well as he has."

Obama also recalled reading about union pathbreaker Dolores Huerta when he was starting out as a community organizer.

"Everybody on this stage has marked my life in profound ways," he said.

Obama added that Pat Summitt, who led the University of Tennessee women's basketball team to more NCAA Final Four appearances than any other team, had helped pave the way for his two daughters, "who are tall and gifted."

"They're standing up straight and diving after loose balls and feeling confident and strong," he said. "I understand that the impact that these people have had extends beyond me. It will continue for generations to come."

The Medal of Freedom is presented to people who have made meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States, to world peace or to other significant endeavors.

Other honorees:

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold the job.

John Paul Stevens, former Supreme Court justice.

Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, who died in 1927.

Shimon Peres, president of Israel, who is to receive his medal at a White House dinner next month.

John Doar, who handled civil rights cases as assistant attorney general in the 1960s.

William Foege, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who helped lead the effort to eradicate smallpox.

Gordon Hirabayashi, who fought the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. He died in January.

Jan Karski, a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. He died in 2000.

Huerta co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America. Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth. Dylan's vast catalog of songs includes such rock classics as "Like a Rolling Stone," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Mr. Tambourine Man."

The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

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