Precious Medal: Thankful trip to White House
Medal of Freedom the exclamation point on Berra's exemplary life
It is nearly 10 at night, and I am riding in the passenger seat of my dad's car along the long, dark stretch of I-95 between Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. We're listening to country music, and we're both too emotionally spent to really have a conversation. Because, wedged between our duffel bags in the back seat, in a glossy mahogany box with a bronze nameplate on its front, is my Grampa's Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Depending on how you look at it, the Presidential Medal of Freedom that my late grandfather, Yogi Berra, was presented on Tuesday, was either six months or 90 years in the making. It was last May that we started the online petition on whitehouse.gov to nominate Grampa for the medal, in celebration of his 90th birthday. Getting those 100,000 signatures in 30 days is something my family is incredibly proud of, and we then spent the summer writing letters to the president to keep it at the top of his mind. I remember one July afternoon, reading Grampa a portion of a letter I would send to President Barack Obama to try to expedite the process. "You'd better be careful," Grampa said, "insulting the king."
Grampa passed away on Sept. 22, a month before we were notified by the White House that he would receive the medal. The news then was bittersweet; I was so sad that Grampa would not be able to get the medal in person, but so, so proud that he would receive the honor.
On Tuesday at the White House, my emotions were much the same. I watched the president shake my father's hand and give him that box that now rests in our back seat. I imagined my grandfather getting the Medal himself, having to remove his ever-present Yankees cap to have it draped around his neck, and I cried, still feeling a bit like I'd come up short for a man who never came up short for anyone in his life. But I was also immensely proud to see my father, beaming, representing my grandfather, on a golden stage filled with luminaries and dignitaries, between those two famous, gilt-framed pictures of George and Martha Washington in the East Wing.
The charismatic President Obama is a pro at these things and did not disappoint. He went off-teleprompter frequently, ad-libbing comments and jokes, and did a wonderful job of keeping the ceremony funny and entertaining while also making it touching and poignant.
My dad thinks Grampa would have been overwhelmed by the honor, and would wonder why he belonged in company with NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson or world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. And Dad is probably right; despite the number of lives he touched for the better, Grampa didn't think of himself as an above-average American citizen. He just did his best on the battlefield and the ballfield and did his best to be a good man.
Still, he would have enjoyed the company. Grampa had met director Steven Spielberg on numerous occasions, and they could have caught up. He would have chatted with Spielberg's wife, the actress Kate Capshaw, about their shared hometown of St. Louis; up until Capshaw's mother passed away two years ago, she frequented Tony's restaurant on The Hill, one of my grandparents' favorite haunts.
Johnson could have expressed her admiration for my plucky Grampa to him rather than to my dad and me, and Perlman could have told him his stories about watching him and the Yankees play in the early '60s.
Grampa would no doubt have loved to see his long-time pal Willie Mays, who accepted his medal in his Giants cap; like Grampa's Yankees cap, that hat is as much a part of who Willie is as his DNA. Those two Hall of Famers would have talked the day away; I've never seen a picture of them in which they weren't both smiling ear-to-ear.
And I have no doubt Grampa was smiling down on us.
He would have laughed at my history-buff father, who took pictures of every White House painting of every president and first lady, of the chandelier in the library that once belonged to James Fenimore Cooper, of George Washington's sword on the wall. He would have given me a thumbs-up for wearing a leopard-print top in homage to my very stylish Grammy Carmen. And he would have loved the orchestra playing scores from Stephen Sondheim's musicals and Spielberg's movies in the Grand Foyer.
I know Grampa would have enjoyed President Obama's sense of humor as he chided the medal recipients. When he talked about Grampa, the president said, "He lived his life with pride and humility and an original, open mind." That was Grampa, to a T. President Obama also said, "What can be said about Lawrence 'Yogi' Berra that he couldn't say better himself?" I am certain, though, that Grampa would have come up with a gem. And I am doubly certain that as Grampa strolled into the Green Room to take his picture with the president, who arrived a few minutes behind schedule after a day of meetings with French President Francois Hollande, he would have tapped his watch and said, "You're late."
Instead, it was my dad and me, along with my uncles Tim and Dale and aunts Jane and Betsy, who shook hands with President Obama and received big, hearty, I've-known-you-for-years kind of hugs from First Lady Michelle Obama. The president expressed his condolences on the loss of my grandfather and said he had just assumed Grampa had already received a Medal of Freedom.
I'm OK with that, the fact that the President of the United States thought enough of my Grampa to think he must have been awarded our nation's greatest civilian honor sometime in the past. And I've come to terms with the fact that Grampa finally received his medal posthumously, because Grampa wasn't the man he was because he thought it would earn him a Medal. He simply was who he was.
Still, I'm thrilled about that piece of hardware sitting in the back seat. Soon, we'll deliver it to the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, where the 20,000 school kids who visit each year can see it for exactly what it is: an exclamation point at the end of my Grampa Yogi's amazing, exemplary life.