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Ask the Cougar

A Teachable Moment

Harry Freeman, Class of 2011

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It was cold and raining as I drove down George Street in front of the Cistern Yard in late November. Tears rolled down my face, just as they did that of my silent alma mater’s. Together, we grieved the loss of what I believe may be the most profoundly eloquent and deeply dedicated man to ever walk upon her grounds, teach within her arms and inspire generation upon generation of her students to think, innovate and strive to set examples for others.

Next to my own father, Professor Harry Wyman Freeman ’43 was by far the most influential man in my life. It was late summer, 1975, and I was about to become a freshman at the College, when I went to his office in the late summer of 1975 to let him know how important it was to me to get into his biology 101 course, as I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist and had to have the best professor. I was scared to death as I sat across the desk from this very serious, well-known and accomplished professor in a white lab coat and a bowtie, his glasses hanging around his neck. He just smiled, winked at me and said, “Don’t you worry about it, dah’lin.”

From then on, Dr. Freeman had my heart. He was my undergraduate adviser and my major professor in the Graduate School’s marine biology program. Freeman always had my personal interests at heart and wanted nothing more than to see me succeed. It was as if I was one of his own children, and I know there were many, many more of his students that felt the same way. It’s not that I didn’t have to work extremely hard – and he knew that I knew he expected nothing less – but it certainly made all the difference in the world to know that he was in my court. Little did I know that almost 40 years later, I would still be in his.

A brilliant educator, he had a captive aura about him that reflected nothing short of excellence, the highest of standards and an incredibly contagious fascination with and love for the natural world. Because of him, I’ve traveled the world, even going thousands of feet deep in a submersible to see ecosystems that no one has ever seen before or will probably ever see again. As a marine biologist, I’ve had amazing opportunities to help shape national ocean policy – all because of the interest Freeman took in me and the opportunities he afforded me at the College. I know many alums can say the same because he touched so many of our lives, whether we pursued biology, other sciences, dentistry or medicine. 

I had the honor of spending some time with him after he retired – going to a tournament at Charleston’s City Marina together, attending the College’s alumni graduation celebration together, meeting up for casual lunches from time to time and going for what was probably his last boat ride on the Ashley River. During these times, he would tell me about how he walked barefoot to school as a child, how he took the ferry to town, how he loved spending time with his brothers, whom he loved deeply. He would also tell stories about his family and his time in the U.S. Navy. Once, we even sang a Hank Williams song together while we drove across the old Grace Bridge. He was truly the salt of that natural world he loved so much.

In going through some files recently, I came across a note from him that reads, “Paula, I thought you might like to read it all. My best always, Harry W. Freeman.” It is his commencement address from May 13, 1990, in which he stressed the “value of all organic life” and charged the graduating class with the responsibility of preserving and conserving life, the importance of recycling and protecting public lands. He dedicated the address to his “very dear friend and colleague, the most knowledgeable biologist I have ever had the pleasure of knowing: Norman A. Chamberlain ’09, former director of the College’s Grice Marine Laboratory and first program director of the College’s graduate degree program in marine biology.

“I can hear his eloquent voice in the Biology Pit to this day,” Freeman wrote, quoting Chamberlain:

Those of us interested in antiquity, our heritage and this glorious phenomenon called life very much appreciate the fact that life has been around for so long a period of time with this great and marvelous diversity. Consequently, we strive in all of our endeavors to understand it and preserve every facet of it. No living organism is biochemically identical with its Precambrian antecedents but vestiges of earlier biochemistries have been preserved. I would characterize this as fantastic and amazing and, as a consequence, would do all in my power to preserve all life and to understand it even further, but most of all I would try to instill in the minds and daily life of others the value of the preservation of all life.

In his concluding remarks, Freeman said, “Your faculty has instilled into your minds a liberal arts education which will enable you to think and reason as educated and knowledgeable women and men. It is not just the amount of biology or history or English or political science or business administration or art, etc., that you have learned, but it is the power that you have developed to think, formulate decisions and frame the structure of ethical principals to call a halt to the destruction of our environment. We must demand that we clean up our act, and see to it that we do it correctly in the first place.”

Freeman’s passion for the natural world lives on in my work (and I’m certain in much of yours), and his spirit will forever live in my heart. I am eternally grateful. God bless you, Harry.

– Paula Keener ’79 (M.S. ’84) is the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Exploration’s Education Program.