Recognizing Good Works

By November 11, 2005

Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, lawyer, boxer and classics scholar, had several things to celebrate yesterday. He received the National Humanities Medal in the Oval Office from President Bush in the morning. His book "Thieves of Baghdad," about the search for antiquities stolen from the Iraq museum, just arrived in bookstores. And it was also the 230th anniversary of the Marine Corps. Someone, hearing this at a morning reception, gave one of those corps barks: Oo-rah.

But, said Bogdanos, "What I need people to understand is we are not done. When everyone says congratulations, I say I’m not done. For instance, the single most historic piece from the museum is still missing." However, Bogdanos and his colleagues recovered more than 5,000 items of missing art, and that effort was saluted yesterday by the White House.

He was one of more than 20 Americans honored at the White House with a ceremony and a dinner for their contributions to the nation’s arts and culture. It was the second set of medals presented in as many days; Medals of Freedom were presented Wednesday to Muhammad Ali and thirteen others.

The majority of the men, women and institutions who received National Medals of Arts and National Humanities Medals yesterday are still on a quest to practice what Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, called the power to "transform, educate, enlighten and enrich."

The ceremony "went very smoothly and I wish the rest of things went that smoothly," arts medalist James DePreist said wryly, referring to the state of global affairs. DePreist is the conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and the director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School in New York. He has been touring Europe in connection with Juilliard’s 100th anniversary, and will be on the road with its orchestra when it tours the United States next year.

Robert Duvall, the actor, was another arts medalist. Bush invited Duvall to come back to the White House soon to screen his new movie, "Daughters of Joy," a four-hour western that will be shown next year over two nights on AMC. "Best horse I have ever had in a movie," Duvall said. "It is about a horse drive and a guy who wants to make up with his nephew. It is not like ‘Deadwood,’ I don’t like ‘Deadwood.’ " The presidential screening would not be Duvall’s first. "We showed ‘The Apostle’ to Clinton. That was up his alley. This would be up Bush’s alley," he said.

Seated in a quiet corner of a private club at 17th and H streets NW, where the recipients gathered after the White House ceremony, Eva Brann, a classics teacher and humanities medalist, said the classroom continues to invigorate her after teaching more than 48 years at St. John’s College in Annapolis, known for its "great books" curriculum. She said she gets as much out of re-reading the classics as her students do. "We have a very strange notion," she said, smiling. "If the students can learn it, we can learn it."

University professors are usually not cheered at formal occasions. But when Bruce Cole, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, introduced Alan Charles Kors as a protector of "the fire of liberty on our nation’s campuses," there was a hear! hear! for the professor who has vigorously defended academic freedom.

For jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, this was the latest in a series of awards. This year he’s been recognized as an NEA Jazz Master. He also won four Latin Grammys and two Grammys.

"I didn’t expect any of these. Now I wouldn’t be surprised if they called me and said I won the Nobel Prize," he said. "But every time they give me an award I accept it humbly. This is not going to spoil me. A lot of great artists never receive awards. The real award is for performing so long."

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