Before Cicely Tyson enters the East Room of The White House, the audience teems with excitement of the extraordinary people in their midst.
She’s the last honoree who walks in as the recipients for the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom are announced alphabetically. The audience, which includes such dignitaries as former attorney general Eric Holder and his successor Loretta Lynch, secretary of state John Kerry, as well as Ms. Tyson’s own guests Tyler Perry and designer B. Michael, tower over the petite powerhouse as she takes her seat next to Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross.
The room is, shall we say, lit.
Ms. Tyson was one of the 21 recipients who received the nation’s highest civilian honor last Tuesday. As a first time White House reporter, I stood in the press pen hearing veteran journalists joke that President Obama saved the best for last. His 2016 class included luminaries in sports and science, with a few big names such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ellen DeGeneres, Robert De Niro, Bill and Melinda Gates, architect Frank Gehry, Tom Hanks, Michael Jordan. (More than a handful of media were there for Michael Jordan alone.)
As President Obama read their individual accomplishments, it was clear he had a personal connection to each honoree long before he called The White House home. When he cited Ms. Tyson’s contributions, name dropping her unforgettable performances in Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Obama reminded the room of the words she once spoke that informed her entire career: “I would not accept roles unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light and dealt with us as human beings.” Obama continued: “Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful memory of the American family.”
Then he went off script and said with a look of a grown man finally in the presence of a childhood crush, “And she’s just gorgeous.” The room agreed as Ms. Tyson blushed like a schoolgirl.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter for the latest in hair, beauty, style and celebrity news. With a career spanning 56 years, Ms. Tyson has won three Emmys, several NAACP awards and an Oscar nomination, as well as a Kennedy Center honor in 2015. In her late 80s, when most actresses retreat from the spotlight, Ms. Tyson walked onto two Broadway stages: The Trip to Bountiful in 2013 and The Gin Game in 2015. For The Trip to Bountiful, she won her first Tony Award at age 88.
Now, at age 91, the first African-American president is honoring her at The White House in front of her family and friends.
As he placed her medal over her red textured suit, I recalled my own intimate moment with Ms. Tyson early in my career. I was a young editor who learned the hard way that women of a certain age, no matter how seemingly unguarded they came off in an interview, required gravitas. I had to apologize on behalf of a reporter, who Ms. Tyson felt has crossed a line. I was mortified. As we spoke on the phone, I said I had assigned her to one of my greatest reporters. She let me finish and simply said, “Great is an overused word. Not all things are great my dear.”
I never forgot that.
The ceremony is now over and a gaggle of media await for brief one-on-one interviews with the honorees. Standing before Ms. Tyson, more than 10 years later, I’m curious if she remembers our phone call. Maturity and professionalism get the better of me and I only ask about today’s ceremony. Ms. Tyson says it was “something she fought for her entire life.” And the big question: What was it really like receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama? She said with a big smile, “What else is there? I’m finished.”
With Ms. Tyson’s track record, she’s hardly done breaking barriers. She is one of the great ones.