Published: Feb 15, 2011 8:59 PM EST
Updated: Feb 15, 2011 6:02 PM EST

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama recognized a former president, a basketball legend and a civil rights hero Tuesday among the 15 recipients of the Medal of Freedom.

During a ceremony at the White House, Obama said the recipients represent, "the best of who we are and who we aspire to be."

The Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor, and is presented to people who have made important contributions to U.S. national security, world peace, culture or other significant public or private endeavors.

Among the recipients honored Tuesday were former President George H.W. Bush, former basketball star Bill Russell, businessman Warren Buffett and civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

Obama praised Bush for his more than 70 years of service to his country, saying his life is a testament to the belief that public service is a noble calling.

"His humility and his decency reflects the very best of the American spirit," Obama said.

The 2010 Medal of Freedom recipients were announced in November. Other winners include:

- Angela Merkel, German Chancellor

- John H. Adams, co-founder of Natural Resources Defense Council

- Maya Angelou, poet and author

 - Jasper Johns, artist

- Gerda Weissmann Klein, Holocaust survivor and author

 - Dr. Tom Little (posthumous), optometrist murdered on humanitarian mission in Afghanistan

- Sylvia Mendez, civil rights activist of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent

 - Stan Musial, Hall of Fame baseball player

- Bill Russell, professional basketball player and first African American to coach in the NBA

- Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA, a non-profit organization that promotes the artistic talents of people with disabilities

- John J. Sweeney, President Emeritus of the AFL-CIO

 (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)