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Remembering Orville Freeman
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Orville Freeman ran unsuccessfully for Minnesota attorney general in 1950 and for governor in 1952, before being elected to the governor's office three times. (Photographer: Bruce Sifford Studio -- Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)
Former Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman, who served as agriculture secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, has died. He was 84. His family says Freeman died last night of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He had been living at Walker Methodist Health Center in south Minneapolis. Minnesota's 29th governor was a Minneapolis native. He was a University of Minnesota football star, a Marine during World War II and a close friend of Hubert Humphrey.

St. Paul, Minn. — In a l997 interview, Orville Freeman recalled there was scant hope the Depression-era teenager could attend college, because his father's menswear store on Lake St. in Minneapolis was struggling to stay in business.

"My first memory of him really is there, and worrying whether the store was going to make a go of it because those were tough times during the Depression," said Freeman.

One of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs helped Freeman find money to attend the University of Minnesota. He was a Gopher football star, and, more importantly for his political career, the U is where he met Hubert Humphrey.

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Image The Freemans on inauguration day

Freeman had finished his undergraduate degree when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The day after the attack Freeman volunteered for the Marines. He was among the Americans who stormed Bougainville, one of many south Pacific islands occupied by the Japanese. Freeman remembers running across the beach seconds ahead of enemy fire.

"It was a foot race whether I could get there faster than they could come, and I could hear the bullets behind me slapping on the water and on the sand behind me, as I dove for cover into the jungle."

The young lieutenant was leading his fellow Marines on a patrol when he was shot in the head. He passed out and spent the night in a jungle swamp. At daybreak, Freeman says, he was strong enough to lead his group out on a harrowing trek back to their unit. At a military hospital a surgeon guided Freeman's hand to the spot where the bullet had stopped.

"There, under the skin like a great big sliver was a bullet, and he just took his scalpel and slit it a little bit and bing, the bullet popped out and rolled across the operating floor."

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Image Freeman and Hubert Humphrey at a Gopher football game, 1955

After the war, Freeman finished law school at the University of Minnesota. He practiced law, served as an assistant to Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey. Freeman became chairman until 1950 of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. He ran unsuccessfully for Minnesota attorney general in 1950 and for governor in 1952.

Freeman won his first two-year term as governor in l955, and won re-election twice. One of his most difficult decisions, he recalled, was in his final term in l959, over a labor dispute making national headlines. Hundreds of workers at a meat-packing plant in Albert Lea were on strike. The company had rejected a union settlement proposal and hired replacement workers.

"The company was giving them the back of their hand, and taking away their jobs and taking away their pensions, taking away their retirement. It was a nasty, bitter strike," said Freeman.

A local official called Freeman, warning the threat of violence was high. Freeman called out the National Guard and ordered the plant closed. Federal Judge Gerald Heaney, a lifelong Freeman friend and political adviser, said Minnesota businesses cited Freeman's use of the Guard to help defeat him in his re-election bid for governor.

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Image John F. Kennedy, along with Freeman and Humphrey

"What he did was call them in to maintain the law and order in Albert Lea. The result was a peaceful strike, and the company did not succeed in what it wanted to do," says Heaney.

A judge ruled Freeman had overstepped his authority in calling out the Guard, but by the then the company had settled with the workers and the strike was over. Heaney says Freeman's next political test was John Kennedy's presidential bid. Freeman nominated Kennedy, a Catholic, at the Democratic Party convention. The Sunday before the November vote, Minnesota churchgoers were warned that electing Kennedy would put the Pope in the White House.

"There was distributed in many many of the Protestant churches including the Lutheran church Orville went to a pamphlet which attacked Kennedy because of his religion," said Heaney.

Within a day, Freeman went on television denouncing the attack on Kennedy, and admonishing Minnesotans who questioned the candidate's religious views.

"And I responded we ought to be ashamed of ourselves on that now, and this is a democratic country and each man's religion is his own business, and it's not something in the political arena. People didn't like to be lectured and that didn't help me one little bit," said Freeman.

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Image Freeman (right), as U.S. ag secretary, tours a Georgia farm, 1961

Kennedy won Minnesota with a 20,000 vote margin. Freeman lost his re-election bid for governor by 20,000 votes.

After the election, Kennedy called Freeman, offering him a Cabinet post. Freeman said fine, any job but secretary of agriculture. Freeman remembers Kennedy laughing at his not wanting the farm post, making clear that was the job that was available.

Freeman said he didn't want the task of crafting farm policy, an onerous political endeavor in the best of times, when the country was full of grain that was driving down prices paid to farmers.

"And we were piled up with surpluses, even the moth-balled fleet was full of wheat. We had no place to put it. It was a dead end and it was really a tough circumstance."

Freeman's remedy for sinking farm prices was to put controls on production. The controversial ideas included idling farm land for years at time. Freeman recalled using any means he could think of to win votes in Congress.

When Freeman learned his plan was in trouble with Allen Ellender, the influential chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Freeman showed up on a Saturday to help the Louisiana senator move.

"So I went to his apartment and I punched the bell and he said, 'Who is this?.' And I told him, and he says, 'What do you want?' I said, 'Well Mr. Chairman, I understand you're moving, and I thought someone with a weak mind and a strong back might be useful, can I help you?' Silence. 'Come on up.'"

After serving eight years as Secretary of Agriculture for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Freeman left public life for business. In speeches like one at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute in l984, he described the paradox of our age -- a world full of food and of starving people. He said America's agricultural economy resists most attempts to try to solve the paradox.

"The result is deep fractionalization -- strongly contending forces, some with narrow bottom line interests, and others with deeply held emotional positions, compete often to further their own ideas and interests."

Former Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman. He is survived by his wife Jane, his daughter Constance, and his son, former Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

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