Northwestern University School of Law professor emeritus Newton Minow
Northwestern University School of Law professor emeritus Newton Minow ()

Sidley Austin senior counsel and former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack Obama on Nov. 22.

Minow was one of 21 recipients honored at Tuesday’s ceremony at the White House that included Bill and Melinda Gates, Richard Garwin, Ellen DeGeneres and Michael Jordan.

“As far as I know he was the only one of today’s honorees who was present on my first date with Michelle,” President Obama joked at the ceremony. “Imagine our surprise when we saw Newt, one of our bosses that summer, at the movie theater.”

Minow recruited Obama when he was a first-year student at Harvard Law School to work at Sidley as a summer associate in 1989. Obama’s mentor at the firm, native Chicago South Sider and former Sidley associate Michelle Robinson, would eventually marry the future president. (The young couple’s romance was the subject of a movie, “Southside with You,” this year.)

Obama and Robinson ran into Minow and his wife, Jo, rather serendipitously on their way to see Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” in the late summer of 1989, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Minow’s career close to 70-year career has helped shape the development of mass communications to better serve the public interest, said the president in his remarks Tuesday.

After serving in World War II, Minow went on to attend Northwestern University Law School. Following his graduation in 1950, he began working at Mayer Brown before clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Fred Vinson. Minow later became assistant counsel to Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, working on Stevenson’s two presidential campaigns before heading back into private practice as a partner at Chicago’s Stevenson, Rifkind & Wirtz.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Minow chairman of the FCC. In a speech before the National Association of Broadcasters, Minow famously decried the “vast wasteland” of television and called upon networks to take responsibility for their shows’ content. His speech ultimately changed the landscape of TV production in the country and even inspired the creators of “Gilligan’s Island” to christen the ill-fated S.S. Minnow in his honor.

“But the two words Newt prefers we remember from his speech to the nation’s broadcasters are these: public interest,” President Obama said Tuesday. “That’s been the heartbeat of his life’s work—advocating for residents of public housing, advising a governor and a supreme court justice, cementing presidential debates as our national institution, leading the FCC.”

In 1963, Minow joined Leibman, Williams, Bennett, Baird & Minow, which merged with Sidley a decade later. He served as Sidley’s managing partner until 1991, when Minow became senior counsel. Minow is just one of 14 lawyers and judges, not including past Supreme Court justices, to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Newt is well-deserving of this high honor having distinguished himself in many ways throughout his long and illustrious career,” said a statement from Sidley partner Larry Barden, chair of the firm’s management committee. “He has maintained a prominent law practice while devoting himself to many public and charitable endeavors. We couldn’t be more proud that his lifelong achievements have been recognized with this honor.”