By AUDREY FISCHER
For achievements that Librarian of Congress James H. Billington described as “distinguished, sustained and remarkable,” seven exceptional Americans were designated “Living Legends” by the Library on April 12.
To his great surprise, the Librarian was named the eighth new Living Legend of the day, becoming the 98th person to receive the prestigious medal since the Library’s bicentennial in 2000.
“Dr. Billington has taken this library into the digital age,” said Mickey Hart, musicologist and former percussionist for the Grateful Dead, who presided over the awards ceremony. Hart, a Living-Legend honoree in 2000 and a member of the Library’s American Folklife Center Board, praised the Librarian for “his vision of a digital Alexandria.”
“All of this technology has taken shape during his watch,” Hart added, alluding to the interactive Library of Congress Experience, which opened to the public earlier in the day.
Many of the Living Legends expressed their surprise at being given the distinction, and several emphasized the significance of being a “Living Legend.”
“I thought I was being asked to cover the event,” joked chief Washington correspondent and veteran journalist Bob Schieffer.
“Why me?” was the reaction of Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. “I’m just a simple person who played baseball. I’ve won team awards for a team sport, but this is a different stage.”
“I could win a pennant with this lineup,” he quipped.
“What do we all have in common?” wondered jazz great Herbie Hancock. He concluded, “Each of us in our own way thinks outside the box. That is what is truly American. My ancestors went outside their chains to create the music I play. The African-American slavery experience changed the cultural fabric of America.”
“The word for it is ‘pride,’” said racing icon Mario Andretti, expressing his reaction to the award. “Pride for myself and my family, to be among these very prestigious inductees.” He came to America from his native Italy at the age of 15.
“I write history, but you see here a lineup of people who have made history,” said historian and Living Legend designee David McCullough.
“This is our American Acropolis—it is fitting that the Capitol is side-by-side with our greatest Library. To be honored here is as high a moment as I can imagine,” McCullough said.
“It’s an enormous honor to be seated with this constellation of Living Legends,” said civil rights activist Julian Bond, who proudly noted that his mother was a librarian. Bond, who is chairman of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), noted that the organization’s papers are among the largest collections in the Library.
Speaking of large collections, veteran journalist and author Cokie Roberts mentioned Thomas Jefferson’s library—more than 6,000 volumes on display in the Southwest Pavilion.”It was perhaps a great blessing the British handed the Congress,” said Roberts, referring to the burning of the U.S. Capitol in 1814 and Congress’s subsequent purchase of Jefferson’s personal library to rebuild the Library’s early collection. She joked that Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, was probably delighted that her father “finally got rid of all those books,” which were taking up three rooms in the family home at Monticello.
On hand to see Roberts accept her award was her mother, Lindy Boggs, the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana, and a former ambassador to the Vatican. “Mother has prodded this nation relentlessly to be a better union,” said Roberts.
For his part, the Librarian thanked the crowd for coming to “celebrate achievements of such diversity” and invited them to come back to visit the Library.
“This is your library. It’s all free, it’s all yours and much of it is also online.”
Established during the Library’s Bicentennial celebration in 2000, the “Living Legend” award honors artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures and public servants who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage. For more information and a list of inductees, go to www.loc.gov/about/awardshonors/livinglegends/.
2008 Living Legend Inductees
Mario Andretti. Referred to by many as the “greatest race car driver of all time,” the skilled and versatile driver produced some of racing history’s most notable wins including the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, the Formula One World Championship and the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
James H. Billington. The 13th person to hold the position since the Library’s founding in 2000, the Librarian of Congress celebrated his 20-year-tenure in 2007. He has worked to harness digital technology and the Internet to make the content of the Library available to users around the world.
Julian Bond. This Civil Rights activist and NAACP Chairman has been a social change agent since 1960. He served more than 20 years in the Georgia General Assembly and is a university professor and writer.
Herbie Hancock. An Academy Award- and Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist and composer, this icon of modern music has seen commercial and artistic success in acoustic and electronic jazz and R&B since 1960.
David McCullough. An acclaimed historian, his books have been praised for their scholarship and understanding of American life. He has received two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Cokie Roberts. This columnist and national bestselling author also serves as senior news analyst for NPR and political commentator for ABC News. She received the Edward R. Murrow Award for radio and was the first broadcast journalist to win the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for coverage of Congress.
Frank Robinson. Rookie of the Year in 1956 and MVP in both leagues (with the Cincinnati Reds in 1961 and the Baltimore Orioles in 1966), this Major League Baseball Hall of Fame member was the first African-American manager (for the Cleveland Indians) in Major League history.
Bob Schieffer. Veteran newsman and host of CBS’s Face the Nation, he is broadcast journalism’s most experienced Washington reporter. He is a member of the Broadcasting/Cable Hall of Fame and recipient of the 2003 Paul White Award recognizing his lifetime contribution to electronic journalism.