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Ethel Kennedy receives Medal of Freedom, highest civilian honor

President Barack Obama awarded Ethel Kennedy the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
President Barack Obama awarded Ethel Kennedy the Presidential Medal of Freedom.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — When President Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to Ethel Kennedy, the 86-year-old matriarch received even more applause than Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep.

Kennedy received the highest civilian honor at a White House event on Monday afternoon with Obama, Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden. She was one of 18 recipients honored in a ceremony in the East Room, including Streep, retired “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw, and musician Stevie Wonder.

“To many Americans Ethel Kennedy is known as a wife, mother, and grandmother,” Obama said as he introduced her. “And in many ways it’s through these roles she’s been able to make her mark on history.”

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Following her husband’s assassination in 1968, Ethel Kennedy founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

The nonprofit aims to continue RFK’s dream of world peace, and it annually awards human rights advocates.

Others receiving the medal Monday included author Isabel Allende and Representative John Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, the longest-serving member of Congress who is retiring at the end of the year.

The list also included Native American activist Suzan Harjo, actress Marlo Thomas, economist Robert Solow, golfer Charles Sifford, former representative Abner Mikva of Illinois, and physicist Mildred Dresselhaus.

Posthumous medals went to civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who were slain in 1964 as they participated in a voter registration drive in Mississippi. Other posthumous awards were for choreographer Alvin Ailey and Representatives Patsy Mink of Hawaii and Edward Roybal of California, founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Several members of the Kennedy family were at the ceremony, including Ethel Kennedy’s grandson, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III.

“As her family will tell you, and they basically occupy this half of the room, you don’t mess with Ethel,” Obama joked.

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Joseph Kennedy described his grandmother as an inspiration, especially to him but also to many of his family members. He said he spoke to her when she learned she would receive the award in early November, and she was “excited for the moment.”

“She’s a remarkable woman to put it mildly,” the Brookline Democrat said. “She brings a tremendous amount of joy and laughter to the people who surround her.”

During Monday’s event, Obama joked about the contributions she made to ALS research, as part of the social media driven “Ice Bucket Challenge.”

In a video with her entire family, Ethel Kennedy challenged the president before dumping an orange bucket of ice water on her head with some assistance from a younger family member. Obama turned down the bet and instead made a monetary donation to an ALS charity.

“I chose to donate,” Obama said on Monday. “I grew up in Hawaii. I don’t enjoy pouring ice water on top of my head.”

It was the only time, he said, that he’s said no to Kennedy.


Cat Zakrzewski can be reached at cat.zakrzewski@globe.com.