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From this Perch column: More light, less heat

The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The idea was to honor Americans who have made significant contributions to our national interests — everything from world peace to various aspects of our culture.

Recently the medal was awarded to Alan Page, a former football star and the first African-American to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court.

I have encountered Alan Page on two occasions.

The first was during a marathon many years ago. By "encountered" I mean I saw him as I chugged along and he ran past me.

The other occasion was at a book signing in Maiden Rock just a few years ago. The featured book was one that Page and his daughter, Kamie, had written: "Alan and His Perfectly Pointy Impossibly Perpendicular Pinky."

The pinky finger on Page's left hand sticks out at a 90-degree angle as a result of numerous dislocations of that digit while playing football.

"I don't remember the game," Page once said, "but I made a tackle. (The pinky) got pulled out of its socket. Teammate Jim Marshall looked at me as I was whimpering and whining. I showed him my pinky. He grabbed it and pulled it back in its joint and the game went on. The 'perpendicular pinky' is a function of it having been dislocated multiple times."

It's noticeable.

When I met him at the book signing in Maiden Rock, I tried not to zero in on that finger. I really did. But I couldn't resist just one, quick look and then we moved on to more important matters, like the book about his finger.

This children's book came out of Page's experience of reading to children at local elementary schools, and the exquisite curiosity of children — in his case often directed at that crooked finger.

Thirty years ago, Page and his late wife, Diane, established the Page Education Foundation, which provides financial and mentoring assistance to students of color.

But the foundation's assistance comes with a condition: the students have to commit to further volunteer service in the community.

The result so far is that the Foundation has awarded grants to more than 6,500 students, who have then devoted more than 430,000 hours of their time to young children.

Page grew up during the segregation era and has had the experience of being pulled over for "driving while black." As he once put it: "The only difference between me and Emmett Till? I wasn't there. (Till was a 1955 lynching victim). The only difference between me and Philando Castile? I wasn't there." (Castile was a 2016 police shooting victim).

When he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a recent ceremony at the White House, Page stood tall — with striking dignity, his integrity fully intact.

Making the moment more poignant was the fact that Diane, Page's wife of 45 years, died of breast cancer less than two months earlier.

Page has been known to speak critically of our current president. But I loved his response when some suggested he should not attend the ceremony, as a sign of protest.

"The politics of this are somebody else's problem. We live in a time when people would like to shed more heat than light, and I am more interested in shedding light."

More light, less heat. A good reminder for us all — starting with me.