Wide-eyed students at Justice Page Middle School in Minneapolis packed the school's auditorium Monday, clapping and cheering loudly as retired Justice Alan Page — their school's namesake and a Minnesota icon — appeared wearing his signature bow tie and a gleaming medal around his neck.
It was a unique teachable moment for the 850 students who had gathered for a school ceremony celebrating Page. He'd just returned from Washington, D.C., to share with them his Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the nation reserves for a civilian. On Friday, the retired state Supreme Court justice and Minnesota Vikings Hall of Famer was presented with the award by President Donald Trump. Page earned it for his career accomplishments and charitable work through the Page Education Foundation, which has given out more than $15 million in scholarships to nearly 7,000 Minnesota students of color in the past 30 years.
"Each one of you has the ability to be sitting here doing the same thing that I'm doing down the road," Page told the students.
In honor of his late wife, Diane Sims Page, a social justice advocate, an empty chair adorned with a white cloth and a red rose was set in the front row of the auditorium. Sims Page, who was married to Page for more than 45 years, died of breast cancer seven weeks ago.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom "signifies the work Diane and I have done over the years to do what we need to do to ensure educational opportunities for all children," Page said Monday. "It signifies the work that we have done to ensure equal justice under the law."
Justice Page Day
At the ceremony, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey presented a proclamation from Gov. Mark Dayton declaring Nov. 19 as "Justice Page Day." A few days ago, the governor also declared Nov. 14 as "Diane Sims Page Day."
In addition to the surprise declaration, school leaders announced 17 Justice Page Middle schoolers as winners of the new Junior Page Scholar Program. The educational program, modeled after the Page Education Foundation's program for high school graduates, is designed to give students leadership opportunities while priming them for college. The scholars will also have monthly lunch meetings with Page.
Students squirmed in the auditorium's creaky wooden chairs as they listened to Page's responses to the questions posed by six of the newly named junior scholars who joined Page on stage. (Just last year, the students waged a successful campaign and nixed Alexander Ramsey's name from their school building, changing it to Alan Page. Ramsey was Minnesota's first territorial governor and the second governor of the state; he called for the extermination of the Sioux Indian tribe, now known as the Dakota.)
Asked by a student how receiving the medal has impacted him, Page said that "recognition for what you have done is a good thing, but it doesn't hopefully change who you are."
He added: "Fame and recognition, they are not who you are. What you do with your recognition really matters."
But students couldn't resist the urge to ask Page, who has publicly criticized Trump for exploiting racial insecurities, how he felt meeting the president and accepting the medal from him. Page said it was challenging, but he felt a great responsibility to represent his ancestors who entered the country as slaves, as well as the students, and those who came before him and were honored for the good work they've done.
"It is definitely very important to be [a] representative for them at the White House, the people's house. It is your house. It is my house," Page said.
The typically stoic judge became emotional when answering a question about his late wife. Eighth-grader Adnan Ismail asked him what Sims Page would have thought of him receiving the honor. Page choked on his words and replied: "She would be over the moon. She would be so proud."
After students flocked around their hero for handshakes and photos, Ardo Ibrahim stopped to give her son Adnan a pep talk. She said she was moved by Page's speech and his long list of accomplishments.
"I want you to be like him," Ibrahim told her son. "I want you to take advantage of this opportunity, and I want you to take his advice."