Tom Freeman: Past, Present & Future
Artist Extraordinaire and Local Legend
Last updated 2/25/2019 at 11:53am
Tom Freeman turned 93 years old on October 19, 2018. Who is Tom Freeman? Well, he's kind of a legend around here - a Lake Wales treasure. He's somewhat of a renaissance man: an artist, poet, farmer, educator, businessman, war hero, golfer, historian, fisherman, storyteller, wildlife expert and activist. His life is an inspiration to many, and his art is a fabulous and important legacy. As are many, I am honored to know Mr. Freeman, and I am grateful for the privilege of painting a mural with him at the Warner University. For the purposes of this article, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom and his friend, Marcia Pennington.
The Early Years
Tom was born in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee in 1925. His parents then moved to a farm in Cordoba, Alabama. In 1932, when Tom was seven, his father died in a wagon accident while helping someone in need. After that, his mother had trouble managing the farm. Her sister was married to a minister who pastored a church in Frostproof. She told Tom's mother, who suffered from frequent headaches that she believed to be related to the colder weather, about how nice and warm it was all year round in Florida. In 1942, Tom's mother moved Tom and his three sisters to Central Florida.
"...so we loaded up our old tin suitcases and got on a train in Birmingham" Tom told me in his sonorous Southern draw, "and I remember my mother saying, after all of us being on the train together for a really long time, she said to the conductor, 'Mr. conductor, are we gonna be in Frostproof soon?' and the conductor said, 'Yes Ma'am, just one more stop before it.' " (That would have been Lake Wales.)
"...so my mother said, 'Mr. Conductor, when we get there, I want to pull the cord and stop the train.' The conductor said, 'OK ma'am, 'I will let you do that.' So when we got to Frostproof, she reached right up and pulled the cord." (Tom mimicked the motion and the sound it made.)
"When we got off the train, we had no way to reach anybody. Nobody had a telephone, and the train schedule was too unpredictable to arrange anything in a letter...so I walked the three miles into town and found my uncle, who came and picked us up in his big old Packard car. We had to tie our suitcases to the roof."
Tom was only 16 then, and still in high school. Tom's mother found work in the citrus industry. With money from the sale of the farm, and by securing a $3,500 loan, his mother bought a house in Frostproof. It was not a bank loan. It was a personal loan from then Chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission, John Maxcy, brother of Latt Maxcy, an early pioneer of the Florida citrus boom and subsequent owner of the Lake Reedy Packing Company, the largest packing house in the region. The two brothers eventually branched off into banking and founded the Citizens Bank and Trust Company.
Tom got a job at the Avon Park Bombing Range, for which he required top secret security clearance. This would help him later in his military service. During the war, the range was known as the Avon Park Army Airfield, and was used as a training base for B-17 aircraft crews for air-to-ground bombing. Tom built wooden boxes for shipping the bombs off to be re-calibrated.
When he turned 18, he was drafted into the US Navy.
"The worst thing about the draft," said Tom's good friend, Marcia Pennington, "is that, when they turned 18, they took them, even if they hadn't finished high school yet."
The young Freeman was assigned to the USS Abercrombie 343, a battleship escort with a crew of about 220. The battle was on. Tom didn't finish high school until he got back from the war.
He was in the battle of Okinawa, where 4000 troops were lost, and he spoke of Japanese kamikaze pilots diving their wounded airplanes into the US warships in his Pacific fleet.
He remembered one of his first sketches, when he was sitting on the ladder of the Abercrombie. "I never had an art lesson in my life," Tom recalled, "...so I'm sketching this ship right next to us, which was just like ours except it was number 342 and ours was 343, and the captain comes by and slaps me on the back and says, 'I didn't know you could draw like that.' and I said, 'Well sir, I didn't either. I never did this before.' So the captain says to me, 'Well, you're sketching that ship right there, do think you could do a sketch like that of OUR ship?' so I said, 'Yessir, I'm sure I could...all I gotta do is change the number.' "
The sketch was sent to the Bureau of Naval Personnel. Tom showed me an old mimeograph copy of it. Tom was on that ship for two years. When prompted, He told a great story about a memorable day on the Abercrombie.
"I was the radar technician, so I didn't have a station," he began, "I stood on the bridge with the captain. I was also the speaker for the captain," he went on, "so when the captain gave an order, I relayed the orders to all the different stations on the ship. So, one day, when we were engaging with enemy, the Japanese planes were getting hit all around us, and when they were hit bad enough, they'd sacrifice themselves! I saw one turning toward us, so I said, "Captain, there's a kamikaze coming at us at 12 O'clock, The captain ordered, 'FLANK SPEED! (which was about 38 miles an hour) and zig zag!'...and that ship was a super zig-zagger. It zig-zagged beautifully." Tom went on, "So he gave that order, and we were on the open bridge...we were the only two people there...and I said, 'Captain, he's gonna hit us'...and he was coming in, turning right into us every time we zigged...and the helmsman...his name was Flemming, I'll never forget it...well, he zagged...and just then, the Japanese pilot zigged! The plane hit the mast and cut one of the guy wires holding up the mast and it went ZING...right past my head...it coulda cut my head off cause those things were stretched really tight...but the Kamikaze did not hit the bridge!
"So I turned to the captain, whose name was Katschinski...I'll never forget it... Bernard Katschinski...and I said to the captain, I said, 'Captain, he missed us'...but the captain had dived head first down the hatch, down into the steering room to escape the crash. And this guy Flemming, who was steering the ship, was also hurt really bad. The captain landed right on top of Flemming and then hit his head on the steering wheel...and he was bleeding...everybody thought he was dying
"He didn't die though," Tom assured me, "We got him to the hospital afterwards and he recovered. In the meantime, though, we didn't have any hospital facilities on the ship, so we had to put him in a bread locker."
He continued his story, "so the Captain was lying out, and the helmsman, and the Quartermaster was also unconscious...and we were the only three, four people anywhere near the bridge. Everybody else was at their stations firing the guns.
"Every day, we had an officer of the day, and on this day, it was lieutenant Evans, I'll never forget it...so I called Lt. Evans and I said, 'Lt. Evans, the Captain's dyin', the Quartermaster is unconscious, and the helmsman is hurt real bad...and I'm the only one up here to run the ship.'
"Lt. Evans asked decisively, 'What course were you on?' So I said, 'Two Seven Zero.'
" 'What speed were you?' asked Evans.
"...Lt. Evans raised his voice, 'FLANK SPEED! I'M DOWN HERE ON THE FIVE INCH GUN AND THE SUICIDES ARE EATIN' US UP!"
"I took control of the ship," Freeman said confidently, "and, for the next four and half hours, I operated that ship. I was the captain of the ship...that's wartime for ya."
Tom paused a few seconds to reflect.
"And then, when I brought her into the dock" he continued...I interrupted, incredulously, "you docked it, too?"
"Yeeeaahp," said Tom, "at Saipan...so when I came into the dock, I said...to a Mister Henderson, I think...he was some sort of an officer there, and I said, 'I've never brought a ship into a dock before,' and he said to me, 'Well, you been up there every time watching the Captain do it haven't you?' "
"Did they give you a medal?" I asked, hopefully, to which Tom answered quickly, "Noooo. They couldn't even acknowledge that I did that. It was against protocol, I think."
A Full Life
Tom's life has been rife with such adventures. It has been, so far, jam packed with love, hard work, creativity, joys and sorrows...and is still just as full and productive as ever.
After the war, Tom was assigned a special instructor to tutor him and test him for his high school diploma. After earning it and buying a school ring, he lost the ring while swimming in Silver Lake, in Frostproof. To Tom and his mother, the cost of the ring was significant.
He enrolled in Florida State University and was among the first class that included men on the formerly women-only campus.
"There were so many veterans coming back from the war," Tom told me, "that all the colleges were full, and we all got to go to college on the GI bill, so everybody wanted to go to college."
He wanted to study electrical engineering, but those courses were also in high demand among veterans, and FSU didn't offer those courses, so Tom settled on a curriculum comprised of commercial art and advertising. At FSU, he also met his future wife, Priscilla, to whom he would be married for the next 64 years.
Tom developed an interest in golf as a caddy, joined the first golf team at FSU, and has been an avid golfer ever since. He has also been a prolific painter of Florida landscapes throughout his entire adult life, and it is to this passion and achievement that he owes the lion's share of his notoriety.
After college, Tom got a job in advertising for Liggett-Myers Tobacco Company, known for being the first to target women with their famous slogan, "Blow some my way." His new bride, Priscilla, became a school teacher. Tom took a job in advertising for General Motors in Jacksonville six years later, but soon returned to Lake Wales to start his first of four businesses; in downtown Lake Wales, he had a Frigidaire Store, a General Electric store, a Western Auto, and an art supply store.
He completed his bachelor of arts degree in fine art and education at Florida Southern College, his master's degree in art education and administration at Florida Atlantic University, and embarked on a career in education. He was an art instructor at Lake Wales High School for four years before becoming the assistant principal for over 20 years. He was also the golf coach at the Lake Wales High School and, in the evenings, taught art classes at several different arts organizations, including the Lake Wales Art Center and Bok Tower.
Nearly 27 years later, a little girl found a metallic object on a sandbar in Silver Lake while digging with a bucket. Her mother took what appeared to be a ring, encased in crusted sand, to the only jewelry shop in town. At Pike's Jewelers, it was cleaned up to reveal the engraved letters, "TAF" on the inside.
Of course, by now, Tom Freeman was well known throughout the area. Pike had been selling school rings to every class at Frostproof High for more than 30 years. He knew that Tom had graduated somewhere around 1944, so he contacted him and asked if he had a lost his high school ring. After 26 and a half years, Tom got his ring back.
But sadly, Tom and Priscilla lost something infinitely more precious just a few years later. In 1973, their 20-year-old son, Gary, was killed in a car accident. But the indefatigable Freemans found the strength and will to carry on.
Throughout his life, Tom has received a steady stream of honors and awards. A few he mentioned include being named the one and only artist laureate of the town of Lake Placid having a gallery of his work installed throughout the halls of the Dr. H. Darel Darby building at Warner University in Lake Wales, being chosen as the Grand Master of the Lake Wales Mardi Gras parade, and winning the Lake Wales Country Club Golf Championship in 1965.
Since retiring from Lake Wales High School in 1989, Tom has taught literally hundreds of aspiring artists, many of whom have gone on to become well-known, professional artists themselves.
Tom lost his beloved wife in 2014.
Marcia Pennington, meanwhile, had been a good friend to both Freemans for many years. She also had been an art teacher and school administrator most of her life, but had stopped painting until, after the passing of Priscilla, she and Tom started spending more time together.
"Tom got me painting again," she says. Judging by her current work, she had a great deal of talent and technique to begin with, and she was soon an accomplished Florida landscape painter in her own right.
Over the past few years, Pennington and Freeman have been painting together frequently, and have assembled a significant body of new work. Marcia has a style so similar to that of Tom Freeman that it is not easy to tell them apart. When Tom was recently asked to exhibit at a new gallery in Lake Wales, he had one condition: "I want her to exhibit with me" he said. It was the inaugural exhibit at the gallery, and Tom's and Marcia's first exhibit together.
To date, Tom has produced over 1,800 landscapes, about 60 portraits, two murals in Frostproof, two in Lake Placid, and nine and counting in Lake Wales. His work hangs in banks, doctors' offices, colleges, museums, libraries, insurance companies, law firms, and personal collections all over town and far beyond. He has had 42 exhibits, having recently taken down that first exhibit of his work, together with that of Marcia Pennington, at the all new Gallery at Melange. A new, Florida wildlife themed art exhibit featuring Tom Freeman, Marcia Pennington, and Florida nature photographer and former Sheriff James "Jamie" Adams opened Feb. 7 at the Lake Wales Arts Center.
Tom and Marcia have also recently completed two murals together at the Lake Wales hospital, and have plans to paint another one at the Marion Nelson Funeral Home, as well as a mural on the wall adjacent to the indoor swimming pool at Tom's Lake Wales Country Club home.
Soon a book will be published including reproductions of over 67 of Tom's paintings - at least one from each county in Florida - as well as some of the more colorful stories about Tom's life and the places and memories throughout Florida that have inspired his work.