Bill Freeman was buried yesterday. Somehow the world seems less fun.
Bill was a retired Air Force colonel, with a booming voice that could keep you in rapt attention if he was merely reciting the alphabet. It was a voice that could fill a room, but it was no match for Bill himself. He had presence, spirit, warmth and joy that made him a magnet for people looking to have a good time.
He was one of those rare people who not only survived the intrigues of military politics, but came through it with absolutely no guile. He was the kind of warrior who gives the military its good name and a friend his special value – the kind of person who went into the foxhole with you. And you never had to check to see if he was still there.
If he was your friend, he was your friend. He would be there whether you were at the peak of your power or whether you were on food stamps. He had strong beliefs, but he did not use them to judge others. He had a strong faith, but he did not use it as a weapon to beat you up. He was the best kind of believer – the kind who understands that you bear witness every day in how you treat other people.
Bill treated people to the best that he had to give. There were stories of his days supervising Air Force One and the reel-to-reel tapes that he personally recorded so JFK would have music on-board, tapes that he kept with him after the President was killed. There was his time in Asia when he walked into a helicopter hangar to find that the crew had the helicopter hovering inside the building while they attempted to change its tires. There were his hijinks as a youngsters, and the pranks involving outhouses could bring “tears to a glass eye,” as his college frat brother and former Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris would say. Nothing, absolutely nothing, meant more to him than the University of Memphis, and he faithfully followed teams anytime it was possible.
He knew exotic places and had tasted sophisticated ways of living, but there was only one place where he wanted to be – home in Shelby County. He returned to command the old Defense Depot, and upon his retirement, he joined the Morris Administration, where he was a popular and oft-requested stand-in for the mayor. In fact, Cotton Carnival krewes called months early to make sure he could attend their receptions and kick off the festivities in style. As Mayor Morris once joked: “They don’t even ask for me anymore, unless they need a representative for Bill, because he can’t make it.”
He worked in the mayor’s office and was promoted to head up the division of corrections, where his ability to motivate the 1,000-people there tapped into his skills as a military leader. He was loved by everyone there, and it was a blow when the mayor that succeeded Mayor Morris told Bill that someone with professional corrections experience was needed. In his classic style, he submitted his resignation and never uttered a critical word publicly about it. (It’s worth noting that the “professional corrections officer” appointed to replace him ultimately had to be fired for a variety of reasons, including the bleak morale that he created. It took years for the corrections center to get back to the level that it was when Bill was in charge.)
The later years of his life were cruel, but he would always summon the strength for a conversation about the old days or to ask how each member of my family was doing – by name. He particularly loved to talk about “the university,” and when my older daughter went to work at the University of Memphis in alumni affairs, to Bill, it was if a parish priest had been summoned to work in the Vatican. He always called my daughters “his girls,” and he would faithfully show up for graduations as a welcome member of the family. And there was never any question whose voice would ricochet off the walls when one of my daughters walked across the stage to get their diplomas.
Even as his health failed, he would still show up on our backsteps at Christmas, holding onto a ham and a sheepish grin. He would sit in the rocker and we’d catch up, and if one of my daughters happened to be home, it became one of the holiday’s most special occasions. With Bill, it always felt like you were picking up a conversation from the previous day, when in fact months could have passed.
Bill loved nothing more deeply, outside of his family, than the rich soil of the Mid-South. And now they are one. I can’t imagine anything that would have made him happier.