Relating Medal of Freedom recipients to Alaskans

The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established in 1963 by President Kennedy to recognize individuals that have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors”. This award along with the Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award that one could ever receive. President Obama just bestowed this distinguished honor upon 13 individuals.


Heading this civilian all-star list is Bob Dylan, a cultural icon whose songs “The Times They Are Changing” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” became synonymous with the anti-war movement. He is closely followed by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who became a global diplomacy star with her role in helping to end the Balkan War in Yugoslavia. Then there is one of my all time heroes — Basketball coach Pat Summit, who has the best win record in all of NCAA basketball. While as a former basketball player I admire her ‘in your face determination’, she steps in my hero limelight because of her role in bringing national attention to Alzheimer’s disease. Add in Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and former astronaut John Glenn and you can see that this is a pretty eclectic list of distinguished individuals — and this is only five of the recipients.

In admiring and contemplating the role that these fine individuals have played, I began to wonder who might be the Alaskan equivalent be if the State of Alaska had a similar award. And if we did what would we call it? How about the Medal of Denali? After a little investigation, I discovered that the Governor’s Office does have a Denali Award that is designated for state employees who exhibit exemplary public service. Who would get a Denali Award if it were expanded to include any and all Alaskans who made “an especially meritorious contribution” to the State of Alaska? Who is our Bob Dylan? Our Madeline Albright? Ready to play?

In lieu of Bob Dylan, we could have Buddy Tabor. As many Juneau residents know Buddy had a highly productive career as a musician, releasing nine albums, writing hundreds of original songs and performing for four decades at the Alaska Folk Festival. According to a tribute printed in the Juneau Empire he was revered by fans and fellow writers, who frequently praised him for the poetry of his lyrics and refusal to sugarcoat the truth. In recognition for his courage and contribution he received the Mayor’s Award for the Arts Lifetime Achievement. In reading this tribute, I learned that Buddy’s songwriting career was greatly inspired by ta-dah . . . Bob Dylan!

Madeline Albright, known as a deep thinking, strategic diplomat became the first woman to become Secretary of State and she shined. To match her stature would take at least two women and the two women that come immediately to mind are Arliss Sturgulewski and Fran Ulmer, both of whom should have been Alaska’s first woman governor. Both are extremely intelligent with strong diplomatic and leadership skills.

For me, figuring out Coach Summit’s Alaskan equivalent was the easiest. Susan Butcher. Need I say more?

Since we do not have a Nobel Prize-winning novelist in Alaska, it’s more of a stretch to match up Toni Morrison with her Alaskan equivalent. However, when I think of successful writers that have broken new ground for Alaskan writers, I think of Dana Stabenow. She has established herself as a reliable writer of science fiction, mystery and suspense/thriller. Additionally, her “Kate Shuyak” series has launched the first television series based on the works of an Alaskan author.

Now onto to the hardest match of all, John Glenn. With no astronauts to choose among, I instead focused on what would be a comparable historic first for Alaska. Also there is a strong frontier tie between Glenn’s space adventure and Alaska. This led me to Alaska’s true frontier, rural Alaska and the struggle to secure Native rights in the form of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). This leads me to Willie Hensley who, as the title of his autobiography points out grew up “Fifty Miles From Tomorrow” (Kotzebue) and became a pivotal player in the development and passage of ANCSA. Hence, from John Glenn, Medal of Freedom Recipient to Willey Hensley, Medal of Denali Recipient.

How did I do? I’m sure you came up with some different names which just goes to show you that here in Alaska we have some amazing contributors to society; plenty to draw inspiration from.

• Troll is a longtime Alaska resident and resides in Douglas.


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