Alan Page, the former Viking and Minnesota Supreme Court justice, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian, in a White House ceremony on Friday.

In choosing Page, President Donald Trump cited his athletic accomplishments, his long judicial career and his charitable work through the Page Education Foundation, which has provided scholarships to nearly 7,000 Minnesota students of color since 1988.

“Alan Page is a Renaissance man,” said Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, who worked with Page for nearly a decade on the state Supreme Court. “His prowess in athletics and the law make this a very deserving award. Through his education foundation, he has made countless lives better. Through his work on the court, he was a tireless advocate for racial fairness, gender fairness and justice for all.”

Though the president has been widely accused of inflaming racial tensions, in part by identifying himself as a “nationalist” at a time when white nationalism is on the rebound, Page, the first African-American to serve on the state high court, said in a phone interview Saturday that he has “no qualms” about accepting the award.

“The politics of this are somebody else’s problem,” he said. “We live in a time when people would like to shed more heat than light, and I am more interested in shedding light. ... This is about the things I believe in and the things I have worked for. It is quite the honor.”

Page, 73, of Minneapolis, is one of a handful of well-known Minnesotans who have been honored with the medal. Other recipients have included former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger and folk superstar Bob Dylan. Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts cartoon series, was on President Ford’s shortlist in 1976 but ultimately did not receive the honor, according to records kept at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.

A bipartisan approach

Page played for the Vikings from 1967 to 1978 as an All-Pro defensive tackle. He earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota, and after retiring from the NFL in 1981 he went into law, first in private practice and then as a Minnesota assistant attorney general. The state’s voters elected him to the Supreme Court in 1992, where he served until retiring in 2015.

Though Page kept a low political profile while on the court, one of his first public acts when retired was to endorse Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. More recently, Page contributed $1,000 to Democrat Dean Phillips, who on Tuesday beat Rep. Erik Paulsen to win Minnesota’s Third Congressional District seat.

But Page also has stood up for conservatives. In 2017, he was one of the most high-profile supporters of Trump’s nomination of Justice David Stras to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Though some Democrats opposed Stras, saying he was too conservative for an already conservative bench, supporters called him a fair-minded scholar and consensus builder.

At Stras’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., highlighted his tenure on the Minnesota Supreme Court, during which he was joined on roughly one-third of his dissents by Page, then one of the court’s more progressive judges.

Education and the arts

The award comes at a somber time for Page. His wife, Diane Sims Page, died of breast cancer Sept. 29 at the age of 74. A fierce advocate for social justice, Sims Page was the longtime leader of the Page Education Foundation, which has handed out more than $12 million in scholarships.

In 2018, the Pages displayed their vast collection of racially oriented artifacts for an exhibit at the Minneapolis Central Library titled “Testify: America From Slavery to Today.” The artworks and objects, including “Whites Only” signs and other items from the Jim Crow era, were a powerful reminder of the “ideals and promise of America,” Sims Page said at the time.

Page said he hopes his selection as a Medal of Freedom recipient will inspire others to positively effect social change.

“My goal for the longest time has been to try and figure out how to make this world a better place,” he said. “And I think that by receiving this honor, it can help with that goal. We live in troubling times, but we all have to figure out how to live and work together.”

Gildea said some of her fondest memories of Page are when the court would visit a high school for a day, holding live court in front of students. “You could almost see Justice Page thinking, ‘What can I do in this moment to lift someone up, to inspire the young people in the audience?’ ” Gildea said. “You could just see how much he enjoyed that.”

Page remains a folk hero to many Minnesotans. In a 2018 poll, Star Tribune readers voted him the second greatest Viking player in history, following former quarterback Fran Tarkenton. Page was the only defensive player in the top five.

In addition to Page, Trump’s first group of medal recipients includes Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and Miriam Adelson, a doctor and wife of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.