Freeman, Orville Lothrop

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Freeman, Orville Lothrop

(b. 9 May 1918 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; d. 20 February 2003 in Minneapolis, Minnesota), U.S. secretary of agriculture, governor of Minnesota, builder of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, and one of a generation of prominent Minnesota politicians that included Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Walter Mondale.

A man who made his national name in agriculture, Freeman was born a city kid in Minneapolis, one of two sons of Orville E. Freeman and Francis (Schroeder) Freeman. His grandfather had emigrated from Sweden to a farm in rural Zumbrota, Minnesota. His father owned a haberdashery and was later court clerk for Hennepin County. His mother worked at Dayton’s, Minnesota’s best-known department store. But Freeman worked on the Zumbrota farm every summer until he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in 1937. He said his experience on the farm taught him how hard farmers worked, an important understanding for his later political career.

Freeman came to the university an athlete and left it a budding politician when he graduated with a BA in 1940. For one season he played backup quarterback on Bernie Bierman’s nationally ranked Minnesota Gopher football team, but it was the assistant professor Hubert Humphrey whose influence was greatest. The pair became best friends at the university—Freeman once lent Humphrey $250 so that he could take a job at the Works Progress Administration. The two formed a Big Ten champion debating team, and Humphrey introduced the younger Freeman to political activism.

But Freeman’s career and life almost ended before they had a chance to blossom. Freeman enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s law school in 1941 but cut his studies short to enlist in the U.S. Marines the day after Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor. He was leading a patrol on Bougainville Island in the Southwest Pacific in 1943 when he was shot in the left jaw by a sniper. Freeman spent eight months in a military hospital, partially paralyzed and relearning how to speak. The wound left him with a slight speech impediment for the rest of his life. Freeman married Jane Shields on 2 May 1942; the couple had two children.

Discharged as a major in 1945, Freeman returned to law school and worked as an assistant to Humphrey, who during the war had launched both his own career as mayor of Minneapolis and a new political party: the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL). Democrats had always been a minority in Minnesota, and in the 1930s they had been further weakened by a third party, the further-left Farmer-Labor Party, which elected a succession of governors during the Great Depression. But the death of that party’s leader, Governor Floyd B. Olson, scattered the uneasy Farmer-Labor coalition. Humphrey reconstituted it through merger with the Democrats, creating a political force that dominated Minnesota politics and exercised a disproportionate influence on national politics into the late twentieth century.

Freeman earned his LLB degree from the University of Minnesota in 1946 and was elected DFL party secretary that year, becoming the two-year-old party’s leading organizer. The party nominated him for attorney general in 1950. He lost, along with all other DFL candidates for statewide office. In 1952 he lost a bid for governor as well. But in 1954 he became the state’s first DFL governor, defeating Republican C. Elmer Anderson using two campaign innovations: extensive television advertising and a DFL sample ballot sent to households across the state.

A no-nonsense, consensus-building governor, Freeman successfully fought to enact Minnesota’s system of income tax withholding, enlarged its education system at all levels, and expanded the state parks system and social services. He won reelection in 1956 and 1958. He may have won again in 1960, but a controversial response to a meatpackers’ strike in 1959 cost him crucial support among moderate voters. As the strike threatened to turn violent, Freeman called in the state’s National Guard—not to protect property but to keep replacement workers from taking jobs from the strikers. The move helped the union win the strike and endeared him to the “L” in DFL, but it allowed his opponent in 1960, Elmer L. Andersen, to question Freeman’s commitment to law and order. Andersen defeated Freeman, ending his career in Minnesota elected politics.

The national stage, specifically the newly elected President John F. Kennedy, beckoned. Freeman had delivered the nominating speech for Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, and later that fall, with Minnesota’s presidential choice in doubt, Freeman, a Lutheran deacon, gave a televised address defending Kennedy’s fitness for president as a Catholic. The day after Kennedy won Minnesota and Freeman lost it, Kennedy asked him to become his secretary of agriculture. Kennedy had little interest in agricultural issues, giving Freeman free rein over the sprawling government department. Freeman advanced goals that meshed well with Kennedy’s New Frontier and, later, the Great Society advocated by President Lyndon B. Johnson: the use of American agriculture to promote global goodwill and fight poverty.

Freeman organized grain shipments to India in 1962, when that nation was in danger of famine. He organized global food aid through Food for Peace, a program led by the future Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. As an appointed official on the national stage rather than an elected one, Freeman never gained the profile of Humphrey, McCarthy, or Mondale, all of whom eventually ran for president. But he may have come closer to the office than any of them. Freeman later told friends that Johnson had told him that Kennedy had confided that had he not chosen Johnson as his running mate, he would have chosen Freeman.

Freeman served two full terms as a cabinet secretary. After leaving the Johnson administration he served as president of E.D.P. Technology International, a Washington, D.C.–based computer software and systems design company, in 1969–1970. He then moved to New York City to become chief executive of Business International, a firm that provided marketing intelligence to U.S. corporations. He helped set up the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in 1978, after Humphrey’s death. In 1985 he moved back to Washington, D.C., to practice law and lead the Agricultural Council of America. He established the Orville and Jane Freeman Center for International Economic Policy, affiliated with the Humphrey Institute, in 1990. Jane Freeman also has led an active public life, serving as national president of the Girl Scouts of America (1978–1984) and on the board of directors of CARE, a group that presented both Orville and Jane Freeman with the International Humanities Award in 1994.

In Freeman’s final years he lectured at the Humphrey Institute and supported his son, Michael, in his two failed bids for the DFL gubernatorial nomination in 1994 and 1998. Michael served as Minnesota state senator. Freeman’s daughter, Constance, became an international economist, heavily engaged in global aid to Africa. “I inherited his love of politics, and she took on his passion for the world,” Mike Freeman said of his father and sister. Freeman died in 2003 after years of struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

As an early builder of Minnesota’s peculiar party of the left, Orville Freeman created a base that launched several national political careers. He also helped create Minnesota’s distinct political tradition, in which good-government legislation, a willingness to support welfare programs, and vibrant political competition continues to the present day. Although he is not remembered as well as some of his DFL contemporaries, in his day he was just as important, and their success may not have occurred without his leadership in Minnesota.

Orville Freeman’s extensive papers are collected at the Minnesota State Historical Society in Saint Paul. Records of his work as agriculture secretary are at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. No full-length autobiography or biography of Freeman is available, although his career and work in Minnesota are detailed in Jennifer A. Delton, Making Minnesota Liberal: Civil Rights and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (2002), and John Earl Haynes, Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party (1984). Information on his career as Minnesota’s governor is in Rodney E. Leonard, Freeman: The Governor Years, 1955–1960 (2003). Obituaries are in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune (all 22 Feb. 2003).

Alan Bjerga

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Freeman, Orville Lothrop

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