Obama awards Stanford’s Tobias Wolff a National Medal of Arts

Tobias Wolff, author and Stanford professor of English, emeritus, receives a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony on Thursday, Sept. 10. (Video screenshot credit: whitehouse.gov.)

TOBIAS WOLFF, professor emeritus of English, has been awarded a National Medal of Arts for his contributions as an author and educator. President BARACK OBAMA presented Wolff and fellow honorees with the medals – the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the federal government – during a White House ceremony on Thursday, Sept. 10.

“With wit and compassion, Mr. Wolff’s work reflects the truths of our human experience,” noted the National Endowment for the Arts citation. Wolff is known for his memoirs This Boy’s Life, about a 1950s American childhood, and In Pharaoh’s Army, about his experiences during the Vietnam War, as well as for his short stories and novels, including The Barracks Thief, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Stanford President JOHN HENNESSY chose This Boy’s Life for this year’s Three Books program, the first college reading assignment for the Class of 2019.

Commenting on the arts medal, Wolff said, “Every award is special to me, as a reminder that the work you perform in solitude is also a social act – that you’re not just talking to yourself, that what you do can stir a response in others. It’s easy to forget that, when you spend your hours sweating over the choice of a word, taking semicolons out and putting them back in. But of course I’m not so jaded as not to feel particular gratitude at receiving this award from the hands of our president – a man I greatly admire.”

Wolff began his career as a high school teacher and a journalist. He worked as a reporter for the Washington Post in the ’70s. “I was there during Watergate, a reporter’s dream. My desk was right next to Carl Bernstein’s,” Wolff said in a Boston Review interview last year. He received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in 1975 and earned a master’s degree in English at Stanford in 1978, after working as a high school teacher at a Catholic boys’ school. Wolff joined the Stanford faculty as a professor in 1997.

Other recipients of 2014 arts medals include author STEPHEN KING and actress and filmmaker SALLY FIELD.

National Humanities Medals

Also at the White House ceremony, President Obama presented Stanford alumna VICKI LYNN RUIZ with a National Humanities Medal. Ruiz received her master’s degree (1978) and doctorate (1982) in history at Stanford – at the time, the fourth Mexican American woman to receive a doctorate in history in the United States. Ruiz is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine.

The first in her family to earn an advanced degree, Ruiz began her career by gathering oral testimony from Mexican immigrants who worked in U.S. canning factories, noted the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) citation. Ruiz helped to create the field of Chicana studies by highlighting the history of Mexican American women in the United States.

“Ruiz’s work has also focused on dismantling the idea that Latinas are docile women whose domain is in the home,” according to the NEH. Her three-volume Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, which she co-edited with VIRGINIA SÁNCHEZ KORROL, was the first encyclopedia about the contributions of Latinas in the United States.

A humanities medal was also awarded to LARRY MCMURTRY, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow who authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove and collaborated on the screenplay of Brokeback Mountain. McMurtry’s work “evokes the character and drama of the American West with stories that examine quintessentially American lives,” noted the White House citation.

Additional humanities medalists for 2014 include food activist and writer ALICE WATERS, author ANNIE DILLARD, and short story writer and novelist JHUMPA LAHIRI.