Alan Page’s expression was as hard to read as ever Friday as he stood silently in the White House East Room while a president he once criticized for exploiting racial insecurities draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck.
The retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice and Minnesota Vikings Hall of Famer was one of seven recipients of the nation’s highest civilian honor, bestowed in a ceremony dripping with formality, with members of the U.S. Supreme Court and the president’s Cabinet looking on. In an interview afterward, Page attributed his placid demeanor to years of practicing judicial temperament.
“I was taking in the experience,” said Page, who served 22 years on Minnesota’s highest court, and was its first black member. “I tend to not be terribly expressive or demonstrative.”
The eclectic roster of recipients, drafted by the president, also included retiring U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dallas Cowboys legend and Vietnam veteran Roger Staubach, and Las Vegas physician and Republican donor Miriam Adelson. The other three recipients were honored posthumously: baseball’s Babe Ruth, hip-swiveling rock ’n roll pioneer Elvis Presley, and Page’s fellow jurist, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
When the selections were announced last week, Page — who had endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and last year said Trump’s administration “played to the people’s worst fears and has played to people’s racial insecurities” — said he was not interested in engaging in a political debate over the honor. He reiterated that Friday.
“What I’ve been trying to communicate, whether it’s this president or any other president, is what this represents — a recognition of what [wife] Diane and I have tried to do with our lives and in a small way make the world a better place,” Page said. “When I think about it that way, it’s a pretty easy thing to be happy about and proud of.”
Diane Sims Page died of breast cancer seven weeks ago.
“She is looking down with love and so proud of you,” Trump said at the ceremony’s outset, as he was introducing Page.
As a defensive tackle, Page for years fought the likes of the Packers, Bears and Cowboys on the football field. He acknowledged that it was all he could do Friday to stay strong as he thought of his wife.
“Barely, just barely,” he said as he described trying to keep his emotions in check. “There were some difficult moments.”
When Page’s turn came to receive his medal, he rose from his chair and stood at something akin to attention as Trump clasped the ribbon behind the taller man’s neck. The bow-tied Pro Football Hall of Famer locked his eyes forward as three of his children looked on.
One by one, Trump spelled out the accomplishments of each recipient. He also went off-script for a quip about each, guessing that Page might be “a little nervous here with all the Supreme Court justices” attending the ceremony in recognition of Scalia. Page revealed no amusement. “I caught the tail end of that,” he said.
Page’s credentials displayed a great breadth of accomplishment in terms of contributions to one’s craft or community.
After anchoring a fear-inspiring defense for the Vikings in the 1960s and ’70s, he served with distinction on Minnesota’s highest court from 1993 to 2015. In addition, he and his wife founded the Page Education Foundation, which for 30 years has provided scholarships to nearly 7,000 Minnesota students of color.
A selection from the Pages’ vast private collection of artwork and artifacts speaking to black America’s centuries-long struggle for freedom was put on display early this year at the Minneapolis Central Library.
Page, 73, runs counter to the other recipients for his blunt criticism of Trump’s record on race relations. Hatch, retiring in January after more than four decades in office, has been a reliable Trump supporter. Adelson and her husband, casino magnate and multibillionaire Sheldon Adelson, have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Republican politicians and causes; in the recent midterm elections, they donated $120 million to Republicans. Scalia was a conservative icon for decades. Staubach is also a conservative Republican.
But Page struck a conciliatory tone when the White House announced his selection last week. “The politics of this are somebody else’s problem. We live in a time when people would like to shed more heat than light, and I am more interested in shedding light,” he said.
Page will share some of that light on Monday, when he brings his medal to the Justice Page Middle School in Minneapolis for a celebratory gathering.
Page joins a small list of Minnesotans to receive the Medal of Freedom. Others include former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.