By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Citing the power of artists and academics to open minds, President Barack Obama on Wednesday awarded 24 medals to people including "Star Wars" creator George Lucas and writer Joan Didion who he said touched his life and the lives of Americans.
"They challenge us to think and to question and to discover, to seek that inward significance," Obama said, awarding the winners of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
This year's winners included filmmaker George Lucas, creator of "Star Wars," whom Obama applauded for transforming movies.
"I remember when I first saw 'Star Wars,'" Obama said. "There's a whole generation that thinks special effects always look like they do today. But it used to be you'd see, like, the string on the little model spaceships.
Obama, known for his love of basketball and football, seemed particularly tickled to award a medal to Frank Deford, the legendary sportswriter who has spent 50 years at Sports Illustrated magazine.
"Frank, I grew up reading Sports Illustrated, and I think it was very good for me," Obama said, to laughter.
He praised the winners for working hard and following their dreams against the odds.
One of the most poignant moments of the ceremony came when Obama strode to the edge of the stage to meet author Joan Didion, 78, frail and elegant, carefully lifting the thick red ribbon holding the palm-sized humanities medal over her neck.
"Today, decades into her career, she remains one of our sharpest and most respected observers of American politics and culture," Obama said, describing how Didion taught herself to read as her family moved frequently around the country with her father, who was an Army officer.
He cited the courage shown by Ernest Gaines, the descendent of Louisiana sharecroppers, who writes about the lives of African Americans, and blues and jazz musician Allen Toussaint, who helped revive his native New Orleans with music after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Other medal winners included Herb Alpert, who made Latin music popular in the 1960s and co-founded of A&M Records, soprano Renee Fleming, playwright Tony Kushner and comedian Elaine May.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)