WASHINGTON — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actress Marlo Thomas and sports team owner Jerry M. Reinsdorf are among the people being honored with a national prize for public service.
Recipients of the 2011 Jefferson Awards were accepting their honors Tuesday evening at the National Building Museum in Washington. Others will accept their honors Wednesday in New York City.
The recipients of most of the 18 awards, dubbed a “Nobel Prize” for public service, are not celebrities. They include the founder of a nonprofit that works to end childhood hunger and a brother and sister who have distributed phone cards to U.S. troops overseas.
The awards, now in their 39th year, were co-founded by former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and are named for founding father Thomas Jefferson.
The Jefferson Award for lifetime achievement is going to Thomas, known for her role in the TV series “That Girl” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The wife of TV personality Phil Donahue, she has worked with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis for the last 20 years, raising money for pediatric cancer research.
Thomas’ father, comedian Danny Thomas, founded St. Jude, and Thomas has done outreach for the charity since his death in 1991. She said her father told her there were two kinds of people: those who stop for a traffic accident, and those who just drive by.
“You can’t drive by,” Thomas said in a telephone interview. “You have to stop and help.”
Thomas, who will be honored Wednesday in New York, said she believes her father would be proud that the charity has continued to grow after his death. It now raises $700 million a year, compared to $400 million a year when he died. Thomas, who spoke between taping a “Today Show” segment and being interviewed along with feminist icon Gloria Steinem, said her work with St. Jude has changed her.
“It completely stops you short,” Thomas said. “It’s almost irresistible. You have to stop doing what you’re doing and help.”
Among the 13 awards given Tuesday night was one for Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls, who was recognized for the efforts of his sports teams’ foundations. Ginsburg was honored for her long legal career. Before she became the second female justice on the nation’s high court in 1993, she was a judge, a professor and a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, where her work focused on gender equality.
Also Tuesday night, former NFL running back Warrick Dunn received an award for outstanding athlete in service and philanthropy. Dunn, who played 12 seasons for the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was recognized for the work of his foundation, which since 2002 has helped more than 100 single parents become first-time homeowners in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana.
Dunn, whose mom was a single mother until she was killed when he was 18, said he plans next to start a bereavement program for kids in Louisiana, where he was born. It will be called “Betty’s Hope” in honor of his mother, a police officer.
Dunn said in a telephone interview before the ceremony that he hopes to continue to serve people and “stand up for things that are right and positive.”
Non-celebrity honorees said the recognition would make their charitable efforts more visible. Bill Shore is founder of Washington-based Share Our Strength, which works to end childhood hunger. He said his organization, which for years has provided grants to local organizations, is also working directly to get children enrolled in public food assistance programs.
“I think the award shines a spotlight on the issue,” Shore said.
Brittany Bergquist of Norwell, Mass., who with her brother Robbie Bergquist co-founded Cell Phones for Soldiers in 2004, said she hopes the publicity will help them offer more free phone calls to soldiers. Her charity collects old cell phones and exchanges them for funds to provide prepaid calling cards to U.S. troops. The 20-year-old Bergquist, who will be a college junior in the fall, says she and her brother missed school dances or hanging out with friends to run their nonprofit, but it’s been worth it to help service members.