Alan Page awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Alan Page, the former Viking and Minnesota Supreme Court justice, is among seven people who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian, the White House announced Saturday.

The medals will be presented on Friday.

Page is one of a handful of well-known Minnesotans who have been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 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.

In choosing Page, the president 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.

“Minnesota is proud of him and this recognition,” said Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, who worked with Page for nearly a decade on the Supreme Court. “Alan Page is a Renaissance man. 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.”

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 when he was on the court, one of the first public acts he undertook when he retired was to endorse Trump’s political opponent, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential race. More recently, Page contributed $1,000 to another Democrat, Dean Phillips, who knocked off Rep. Erik Paulsen to win Minnesota’s Third Congressional District this month.

But Page also has stood up for conservatives. In 2017, Page was one of the most high-profile supporters of Trump’s nomination of Justice David Stras to the Eighth US. 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 Stras’ history of joining the more-liberal Page in a third of Stras’ dissents when Stras served on the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Page did not return calls seeking comment Saturday. A family member declined to discuss the award, saying the topic is too “controversial.”

Education and the arts

Page’s wife, Diane Sims Page, died in October. A fierce advocate of social justice, Sims Page was the longtime leader of the education foundation, which has handed out more than $12 million in scholarships.

In 2018, Page and his wife addressed rising racial tensions in the U.S. by displaying 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 racial items from the Jim Crow era, are a powerful reminder of the “ideals and promise of America,” Sims Page said at the time.

Gildea, who was appointed chief justice by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2010, 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 a group 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, President Donald Trump’s first group of Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients includes Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Other medals will go to Miriam Adelson, a doctor and wife of casino magnate and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson; Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is retiring after more than 41 years in the U.S. Senate; former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and Page.