The "Highlight” of Sam Walton’s Career: The Presidential Medal of Freedom

March 27, 2014

Sam Walton receiving Medal of Freedom; pictured with Helen Walton, President George H. W. Bush, and First Lady Barbara Bush

The Arrival of Air Force One

March 17, 1992:  Air Force One lands at northwest Arkansas’ Drake Field. XNA – Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport – has yet to be built. President George Herbert Walker Bush descends the stairs to the tarmac in Fayetteville, he and First Lady Barbara Bush arriving to bestow upon Samuel Moore Walton the highest honor a U.S. president can bestow upon a U.S. civilian: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Extraordinary People

Over the past 51 years, the Presidential Medal of Freedom has been conferred upon such diverse recipients as Pope John Paul II, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Cesar Chavez, John Glen, Stephen Hawking, and Nelson Mandela.

Though Sam is invited to the White House for the ceremony, his failing health would make the trip an arduous one. But it’s also Sam’s desire to be surrounded by the ordinary yet extraordinary people he loved and those who loved him – his Walmart associates – that brings the president to Bentonville. 

An Auditorium Full of People, Full of Emotion

In the Home Office Auditorium, Bush’s remarks are direct and to the point. “We come here to honor a man,” he says, “who shows that through hard work, and vision, and treating people right, many good things can happen …”

He extols Sam’s virtues: his love for community, integrity, and business acumen. His voice breaks as emotion takes over when he says “I salute you, sir, and I am proud to give you your nation’s highest honor.”  Tears come to members of the audience bearing witness to this historic moment.  It’s Sam Walton’s last appearance before his beloved associates.

The Origin of Our Company’s Purpose

The medal is placed around Sam Walton’s collar, and Sam – contrary to doctors’ predictions – summons the strength to stand and speak the words that would articulate for posterity the true purpose of our company:   “If we work together," he says, “we’ll lower the cost of living for everyone. We’ll give the world an opportunity to see what it’s like to save and to have a better life.”  Ultimately, those words would be encapsulated in our mission of “saving people money so they can live better."  He considered receiving the medal “the highlight” of his career.

To anyone that doubts the authenticity of our goal of lowering the cost of living as the means to achieving our purpose, one has only to look at the Grand Opening ad of the very first Walmart back in 1962, on display in The Walmart Museum.  There, in the bottom right hand corner of the page, are the words “Walmart Lowers Living Cost.”

And lower the cost of living we did, we do, and are dedicated to doing as we grow and meet the future.