The Dallas Morning News published an interesting article today about the Presidential Medal of Freedom and its overseers at the Army's Institute of Heraldry.
When former President George H.W. Bush visits the White House early this year, he will be one of an eclectic group that includes poet Maya Angelou , billionaire businessman Warren Buffett and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
What they share is the honor of receiving the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
They also have in common the object itself: a medal rooted in the Kennedy complex of Hyannis Port, Mass., with its components painstakingly kept on the Fort Belvoir Army Base. The final product is crafted, among other places, in a factory in Tomball, Texas, just outside Houston.
Its caretaker is Thomas Casciaro, who leads the technical and production division in the Army's Institute of Heraldry.
The name belies the small bungalow in which all of the medals, plaques, ribbons and other heraldic awards are designed for the executive branch, the Defense Department and other federal agencies.
Casciaro and his 22 colleagues create new designs and perform quality-control inspections, but they also serve as historians, maintaining original designs, hubs and dies, and records.
The history of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Casciaro said, stands apart from the myriad other medals filed away in the institute's meticulous library.
Notably, the medal was a pet project of President John F. Kennedy, who recast the Medal of Freedom ordered by President Harry Truman as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a redesign he personally oversaw.
"It's rare that a president would actually look at the design," Casciaro said, adding that he could not recall any other medal with a design that came under such high-ranking scrutiny.
Every minute specification of the design, from the thread count of the ribbon to the accompanying eagle-shaped lapel pins, is meticulously kept in the institute's records.
Documents from the time said the estimated cost for the medal's development was $5,000. To undertake a similar project today, Casciaro calculated the tab would run around $28,000.
The medals were completed in November 1963. Kennedy did not live to present them.
Presidents have since used the criteria established in Kennedy's executive order to award the medals: They are given to those to make "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
Given annually, it can have as many as 16 recipients and as few as one. The White House makes a bulk order every 10 years or so, purchasing 300 or 400 medals at once from one of the handful of institute-certified contractors.
That brings the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Texas. Graco Awards, a 60-employee company in Tomball, is one of the few companies authorized to make many highly restricted government medals, including the Purple Heart and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"It's very prestigious and it's very difficult to make," said Carol Hadley, vice president of the company. "It's very hand-labor intensive – it's a beautiful medal."
But she declined to share further details, citing proprietary information on the medal's production.
Graco and other contractors are closely watched by Casciaro and others at the heraldry institute, their products tested for metal composition, proper colors and size specifications. It is exacting, some would say finicky, work. But Casciaro said the effort is fitting of the end product.
"We're dealing with things that we're giving to what we'd classify as our nation's heroes," he said. "We take pride in that [a medal] that was made in 1960, if you make it again in 2010, it's going to be the same."
To read the complete article, see:
A small bungalow in Virginia is where the nation's biggest awards begin
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