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1997 National Humanities Medal Winners

Ten Who Make a Difference

By Maggie Riechers
Humanities, November/December 1997, Volume 18/Number 6

A rock star, an investment banker, a novelist, and an oral historian are among the ten winners of new National Humanities Medals bestowed by the President of the United States. The medals honor individuals who have stimulated and expanded public understanding of the humanities.

The new award, a bronze medallion, replaces one given in the last eight years: the Charles Frankel Prize, named for the Columbia University professor who became the first president of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. A conference room at the NEH has been renamed in honor of Charles Frankel, and his portrait now hangs there.

The new medal was designed by David Macaulay, the creator of Pyramid and Cathedral and a 1995 winner of the Frankel Prize. President Clinton and the First Lady presented the medals in a ceremony September 29, and the honorees were guests that night at a White House dinner.

The following individuals received a 1997 National Humanities Medal:


Nina M. Archabal

Nina M. Archabal is a tireless advocate for the importance of the past in our present world. As the first woman director and chief executive officer of the 147-year-old Minnesota Historical Society, one of the largest historical organizations in the nation, she has sought to preserve and present Minnesota history. She has done so in a way that embraces the many origins of the state's population.

Under Archabal's leadership the Minnesota Historical Society has created two important places to house information and showcase the state's history--the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul and the Mille Lacs Indian Museum on the tribe's reservation in central Minnesota. The history center is headquarters for the Minnesota Historical Society, which houses 165,000 artifacts and one million archaeological items; its programs present history in a way meaningful to people of all walks of life. The Indian museum is a joint project of the historical society and the Mille Lacs Chippewas. Working together, the two organizations seek to present the history of the tribe and to help native and nonnative visitors understand the Indian experience.

Archabal is involved in several national organizations bringing American cultural life to people. She has served as chair of the board of the American Association of Museums and is currently on the board of directors of the American Folklife Center.

David A. Berry

David A. Berry wants community colleges across the country to have strong humanities programs. To accomplish this he has been involved in several projects to strengthen and broaden the humanities curricula in these two-year schools of higher education. He has led summer institutes for college faculty on topics ranging from classical Greek character to the interrelations of culture and technology in modern life. He has played a leading role in the curriculum development projects of the American Association of Community Colleges to advance general humanities programs, foreign language study, and American studies.

Berry is executive director and chair of the board of directors of the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA), a national nonprofit association he helped create. Its aim is to help the humanities flourish in the nation's two-year colleges. Berry is a professor of history at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey, and an adjunct faculty member at New York University.

Berry directed a joint project of CCHA and Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year college students, as part of NEH's National Conversation initiative. In his continuing role as crusader for humanities education, Berry serves as a mentor to many community colleges that are trying to strengthen their humanities.

Richard J. Franke

Richard J. Franke has been the driving force behind the Chicago Humanities Festival, a city-wide event he first proposed in 1989 and has led ever since with unbridled enthusiasm. Under his guidance the festival has grown from a collaboration of five organizations--the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the University of Chicago, and the Mayor's Office of Special Events--to a four-day event involving twenty-six institutions and attracting twenty-five thousand people to its ninety-one programs.

Franke spent his business career as an investment banker with the John Nuveen Company; he retired in 1996 as chairman and chief executive officer. At the same time he demonstrated his interest in promoting the humanities and education. As chair of the Illinois Humanities Council from 1988 to 1990, Franke looked for ways to share his own love for the humanities with the diverse population of metropolitan Chicago. He envisioned a festival of ideas where scholars, performing artists, poets, and novelists would come together with people from all walks of life to understand how the humanities enrich our lives. He combined his vision with the practical, heading an annual fundraising drive that has made the festival possible for the past seven years.

In 1990 Franke was appointed to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. This year he was named chairman of the National Trust for the Humanities. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

William Friday

William Friday's devotion to the humanities speaks for itself in the many roles he has chosen, whether as president of a major university, the head of a trust dedicated to education, or an advocate for the founding of the National Humanities Center. He has championed the humanities throughout his long career in academia and public service.

Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina, is currently executive director of the William Rand Kenan, Jr., Charitable Trusts, an organization that has established Kenan professorships on many college campuses. During his thirty years as president of the University of North Carolina, from 1956 to 1986, Friday also served on national boards and commissions concerned with educational issues, including the Carnegie Committee on Higher Education, the President's Task Force on Education, and the Commission on National Changes in Education.

Since his retirement from UNC, Friday has continued to be an active participant in promoting humanities issues. He currently heads a national commission to strengthen the Fulbright overseas scholar program.

Don Henley

Don Henley has given real meaning to the concept of using one's celebrity status to advance a cause. He has long been known as a songwriter and one of the founders of the rock group The Eagles. Since 1990, however, Henley, a longtime environmental activist, is getting more publicity for his role as founder and spokesman for the Walden Woods Project, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to protecting the historic woods surrounding Walden Pond outside Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts.

Henley's admiration for the writings and conservationist views of Henry David Thoreau led him to found the Walden Woods Project seven years ago. Since then he has helped raise $17 million by organizing benefit concerts, record sales, and other fundraisers.

The money raised has been used to purchase land slated for commercial development around Walden Pond. The project also purchased a historic eighteen-room Tudor estate near the pond to house the Thoreau Institute, a research library, and archives devoted to the study of the humanities and the environment as it relates to Thoreau's writings and philosophy. The Walden Woods Project and the Thoreau Society will run the facility jointly, giving scholars a chance to study Thoreau's writings in the surroundings he cherished.

Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston chronicles the lives of Chinese Americans facing the ghosts of the past in present-day America. Her books have been critically acclaimed as she "blends myth, legend, history, and autobiography into a genre of her own invention," as one critic wrote. Through her writings Kingston has illuminated the lives of Chinese Americans in this country and their link to their ancestors. In doing so, she has taught her readers much about the struggles of Chinese immigrants.

A former high school English teacher, Kingston is currently a senior lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. Her 1976 book, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, won the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction and was named one of the top ten nonfiction works of the decade by Time magazine. Its companion book, China Men, published in 1980, received the American Book Award and was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent work, a novel, is Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, published in 1990.

Kingston frequently contributes stories and articles to magazines, including the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and American Heritage.

Luis Leal

In his fifty-four-year career as professor, scholar, and writer, Luis Leal has added much to our understanding of Mexico, Latin America, and the Chicano experience in the United States. The author of sixteen books, his research and writings have been widely praised. His works include A Brief History of the Mexican Short Story, Decade of Chicano Literature, 1970-1979: Critical Essays and Bibliography, and No Longer Voiceless.

In 1988, Leal received the Distinguished Scholarly Award of the National Association for Chicano Studies; in 1992 he was awarded the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle, the Mexican government's highest honor granted to a foreign citizen. The University of California, Santa Barbara, where Leal has taught since 1976, established the Luis Leal Endowed Chair in Chicano Studies in 1995, the first position of its kind in the nation.

Leal was born in 1907 in Linares, Mexico, and attended Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, where he held a teaching position. During his career he has also taught Spanish and modern languages at the University of Mississippi, Emory University, and the University of Illinois.

Martin E. Marty

Through his scholarly works on religion and American society, Martin E. Marty has examined our religious roots and the role religion plays in our present world. A professor, writer, and editor, Marty has had a long career dedicated to writing, speaking, and teaching about the subject of religion. Although he is most prominent in the field of religious history, the topics of his writings range from Christian perspectives on health to the natures of friendship and grieving.

Marty is currently the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and editor of the magazine Christian Century. He is the author of fifty books including, most recently, The One and the Many: America's Struggle for the Common Good; The Search for a Usable Future (1969); Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (1970), which won a National Book Award; Pilgrims in Their Own Land: Five Hundred Years of Religion in America, which won the Christopher Award (1984); and A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart (1981). He recently completed Under God, Indivisible, volume three of his Modern American Religion.

Marty was ordained a Lutheran minister in 1952 and served in that capacity for a decade before joining the University of Chicago faculty in 1963. He was associate dean of the Divinity School from 1970 to 1975.

Paul Mellon

Over his extraordinarily long and generous life--Paul Mellon turned ninety this year--he has given vast amounts of his family fortune to help culture flourish in the United States through supporting great museums and libraries and supplying them with important works of art, history, and literature.

In 1941, Mellon and his sister, Ailsa, established the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, named for their father, the famed financier who served as secretary of the treasury from 1921 to 1932 and as ambassador to England from 1932 to 1933. The Mellon Foundation has since become the nation's largest nonfederal funder of the humanities and a major contributor to higher education programs, giving $45 million in these areas last year alone.

Mellon is probably most closely associated with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which his father founded in 1937. Besides donating important works of art to our national museum, he was a key figure in the construction of the East Wing, designed by architect I. M. Pei. Mellon has also been instrumental in the building of other major art centers across the country, including the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, the West Wing of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia, and the Paul Mellon Arts Center at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut. He has a keen interest in libraries as well, among them the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, and has stocked many of them with important works of literature and philosophy.

Studs Terkel

"If Studs did not exist," says historian John Kenneth Galbraith, "some suitable qualified supernatural authority would have to intervene and invent him. And that, admittedly, would be a demanding task." Studs Terkel is a Chicago landmark and connoisseur of oral history. At age eighty-five, he has done nine thousand hours of interviews on his radio show, enough to fill eleven books. Now and again he talks to a celebrity, but most often he talks to ordinary people. Through their words he gives us a portrait of ourselves. "Who do I choose?" he was asked. "People who articulate what others feel but can't say."

He was graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1934, but left the law for the uncertain life of an actor, playwright, jazz columnist, film narrator, and disc jockey. For the last forty-five years, Terkel has been on station WFMT-FM, playing jazz, doing interviews, having discussions, or giving readings from literature and drama-- whatever he deems right for the hour. The mix has won him a Peabody Award, and from it has come a number of best-sellers as well, books such as Hard Times and Working and Race. The Good War won a Pulitzer Prize. His most recent, My American Century, is a reprise of earlier interviews.

This fall Turkel and his tapes are moving to the Chicago Historical Society. There, the sorting out will begin on the thousands of tapes and the decisions made on how to preserve the voices for a new generation.