Ragtime pianist and composer Eubie Blake is 98 years old. Yesterday, following lunch in the East Room of the White House, Blake stood up, buttoned his suit coat, and slowly ambled over to the piano and banged out "Memory of You."
It was his way of thanking President Ronald Reagan for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this nation's highest decoration for civilians.
"All I know how to do is play the piano," said Blake in a low, raspy voice after his recital. "You know, my mother used to say, 'You ain't ever gonna be nothing but a piano plunker.' And you know, that's what I am -- a piano plunker."
Everyone jumped to their feet and applauded. A few people cried.
Reagan conferred the Medal of Freedom yesterday six citizens, one posthumously, in ceremonies at the White House. In addition to Blake, awards went to the late governor of Connecticut, Ella Grasso; Bryce Harlow, veteran of many Republican presidential administrations; Walter Judd, former Republican congressman; Morris Leibman, founding member of the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Charles Thorton, Texas businessman and GOP supporter.
The president thanked the recipients for their service and contributions to the country and called them the "highfliers" of the nation.
His voice cracking with emotion, Dr. Thomas Grasso accepted the medal of his late wife, saying, ". . . this is a bittersweet day in my life . . . We have been in the White House through five presidents and I know this is the last time I will ever be here again . . . the good fortunes of my wife have brought us here in the past.
"It is bitter day because of the loss of Ella, and a sweet day because of this award. My son and daughter aren't going to get this award. I'm going to keep it myself."
Harlow accepted the award saying, "Please don't consider me discourteous, Mr. President. But I am standing up." The diminutive Harlow's tiny frame could barely reach the microphone.
Created in 1945 by Harry Truman, the medal was first designed as an award for "a meritorious act of service which has aided the United States in the prosecution of the war against an enemy . . ."
President John Kennedy jazzed the awarded up a little by expanding it to include special service in the areas of world peace and culture. He also decided that the awards be given annually.
Yesterday's group was one of the smaller ones to take part in award ceremonies since the institution of the medal. Former presidents generally have awarded from 14 to 30 medals at one ceremony.
Previous recipients have included actor John Wayne, soprano Beverly Sills, Robert Penn Warren, statesman John Foster Dulles, composer Aaron Copland, labor leader George Meany, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche and artist Andrew Wyeth.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes aid yesterday that the president chose medal recipients from staff recommendations. Asked if the selections were politically motivated, since several recipients have strong Republican ties, Speakes said, "I'm sure that wasn't a criterion."
James H. "Eubie" Blake, Reagan said, is "the last of the great-time ragtime composers and pianists, the son of slaves, and a pioneer crusader for black Americans in the world of arts and entertainment . . . a national treasure."
Grasso, he said, was "a fond wife and mother . . . she proved that it is possible to reconcile a full family life with a long and eventful political career . . ."
Harlow, he said, was "counselor to presidents and sage observer of nearly half a century of Washington history . . . his vision, integrity and persuasiveness have helped to shape his nation's destiny as leader of the Free World."
He said Judd has "the skills of a healer, the eloquence of a great communicator . . . an articulate spokesman for all those who cherish liberty . . ."
Reagan described Leibman as "attorney, teacher, scholar and philanthropist . . . living proof that a full career in the private sector can flourish hand-in-hand with civic and humanitarian duties."
Of Thornton, he said, "industrialist, warrior and humanitarian . . . "Tex" Thornton has never failed to give generously of his boundless energy, his unfailing courage and his deep love of country."