Medal of Freedom given to Oprah Winfrey, Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks
November 20, 2013 (WASHINGTON) -- President Barack Obama is bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on more than a dozen prominent Americans 50 years after the death of the award's founder, President John F. Kennedy.
PHOTOS: 16 receive Medal of Freedom
Oprah Winfrey, the former talk show host turned TV mogul, says the ceremony is the East Room was a surreal moment despite a life filled with so many achievements and honors.
"I had a moment of gratitude starting at the White House gates and I had to give them my license . I am being celebrated for my life's work," said Winfrey.
The Presidential of Medal of Freedom is given to individuals who spend their life enriching the lives of others.
"It feels like an affirmation and a validation of the work that I have spent my life on the Oprah show and every area of my life, really. It says yes, you're on the right track and, you're doing a good thing," said Winfrey.
A loyal Sox fan, the president poked fun at the Chicago Cubs and their endless chase for the pennant before he celebrated the Cubs ambassadors. Mr. Cub says he was used to the ribbing.
"Ernie became known as much for his 512 home runs as for his cheer, and his optimism and his eternal faith that someday that the Cubs would make it all the way," said President Obama.
At the Friendly Confines where Banks played 17 years and a bronze statue bears his likeness, the marquee was lit up to honor the man the man known to his fans as Mr. Cub. But Banks says Wednesday's ceremony is his greatest accomplishment.
"How important it is to people lives, to spread joy to people's lives, that's the most important thing I got out of this today," said Banks.
Oprah Winfrey talked exclusively with ABC7 Eyewitness News' Cheryl Burton about her honor at the White House.
Winfrey shared the historical significance and the pride of her longtime Chicago friend honoring her life's work.
"It doesn't matter, you know, it's wonderful that it's a president that I know, but it doesn't matter who is giving that award. The fact that you are being celebrated and awarded is a reward for a job well done," said Winfrey.
"If you honor your calling, your calling is your gift to the world. So everybody's giving their gifts every day in their work. So no one who is actually in the trenches doing that, is doing that because they think there's going to be an award," said Winfrey.
Oprah rates the honor as her greatest accomplishment but says there is still work to be done.
"Here is the thing, Cheryl, I think I have to keep moving in the direction of that which is your calling and purpose-- what makes you feel great in life and fills you up," said Winfrey.
Cubs legend Ernie Banks says Wednesday's ceremony was powerful and served as a symbolic passing of torch when he gave the first African-American president an official Jackie Robinson bat. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947.
Obama is honoring former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and leaders in sports, science and public service in a White House ceremony on Wednesday. Obama says the recipients remind Americans of their own potential.
Obama says the late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, showed America's daughters, including his own, that they can set their sights high.
The ceremony opens a day of tributes to Kennedy ahead of the 50th anniversary of his assassination Friday. Kennedy established the modern version of the medal but died before the first presentation.
- A look at the individuals receiving the medal:
- Bill Clinton, the 42nd president and former Arkansas governor, who was also recognized for his post-presidency humanitarian work.
- Oprah Winfrey, broadcaster, actress, activist and philanthropist, who was an early supporter of Obama's first presidential campaign.
- Daniel Inouye, former senator from Hawaii, World War II veteran and the first Japanese American in Congress. Inouye received the award posthumously.
- Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper's coverage of Watergate.
- Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Ride received the award posthumously.
- Richard Lugar, former senator from Indiana who worked to reduce the global nuclear threat.
- Gloria Steinem, writer and prominent women's rights activist.
- Ernie Banks, baseball player who hit more than 500 home runs and played 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs.
- Bayard Rustin, civil and gay rights activist and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin received the award posthumously.
- Daniel Kahneman, psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
- Loretta Lynn, country music singer.
- Maria Molina, chemist and environmental scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
- Arturo Sandoval, Grammy-winning jazz musician who was born in Cuba and defected to the U.S.
- Dean Smith, head coach of University of North Carolina's basketball team for 36 years.
- Patricia Wald, first woman appointed to U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and became the court's chief judge.
- C.T. Vivian, civil rights leader and minister.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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