WHITE HOUSE (CNN) -- President Barack Obama has bestowed the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on 13 people from all walks of life, hailing them for changing the world for the better.
One of them, Dr. William Foege, helped lead the effort to eradicate smallpox, saving millions of lives. Madeleine Albright was the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, and Toni Morrison was the first African-American women to win a Nobel Prize.
Others who stood calmly while Obama placed the medal around their necks included singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, wearing dark glasses indoors and never smiling; civil rights enforcer John Doar; former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; worker and women's advocate Dolores Huerta; former University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, and former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn.
Three recipients were honored posthumously -- Jan Karski, the former Polish officer who escaped Nazi imprisonment and provided firsthand accounts to the Western Allies of atrocities he witnessed in Warsaw; Gordon Hirabayashi, who defied the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts.
A 13th winner, former Israeli President Shimon Peres, will receive his medal at a White House dinner later this year, Obama said.
Albright 'honored' by Medal of Freedom
"What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people, not in short and blinding bursts, but steadily, over the course of a lifetime," the president said Tuesday. "They have moved us with their words, they have inspired us with their actions."
They also affected his life, the nation's first African-American president noted.
Referring to Doar, a Justice Department official in the 1960s who pushed for integration, Obama said: "I think it's fair to say that I might not be here had it not been for his work."
"I remember reading 'Song of Solomon' when I was a kid and not just trying to figure out how to write but also how to be and how to think," he said in reference to Morrison's 1977 novel. "And I remember, you know, in college, listening to Bob Dylan and my world opening up, 'cause he captured something about this country that was so vital. And I think about Dolores Huerta, reading about her when I was starting off as an organizer. Everybody on this stage has marked my life in profound ways."
Obama called the medal "one more accolade for a life well lived" and the crowd of dignitaries responded to his urging at the end with a lusty ovation.
The president also injected some humor into the ceremony, beginning his remarks by noting the packed East Room was "a testament to how cool this group is -- everybody wants to check them out."
The medal is awarded to those who make extraordinary contributions to world peace, national interest and security or other cultural endeavors. It was established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy.