Edmond Freeman, a world traveler, mountain climber, naval officer and Arkansas newspaper publisher who kick-started the careers of some of the nation’s top journalists, died Monday at his Little Rock home. He was 94.
A great-grandson of its founder, Freeman was publisher of the Pine Bluff Commercial for 26 years, during which the paper hired future Philadelphia Inquirer Managing Editor Gene Foreman, future Newsday editorialist Patrick J. Owens and the Commercial’s own Pulitzer Prize winner, editorial page editor Paul Greenberg, who died last month at 84.
Other figures in Freeman’s newsrooms over the years included Joe Stroud, who became editor of the Detroit Free Press; Paul Nielsen, who edited for the Inquirer and The New York Times; and Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business. A son, David Freeman, is science bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal.
Freeman and his brother Armistead, who led the printing and business end of the operation, took over the paper from their father, Wroe Freeman, about 1960 and sold the newspaper to Donrey Media Group in late 1986. The paper is now published as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which acquired it last year.
“Don Williams was the editor when I came to work but I always think of Mr. Freeman as giving me my first newspaper job,” said Byron Tate, the Commercial’s current editor, who hired on as a fresh-out-of-college reporter in the 1980s. “He stayed out of sight mostly and wasn’t one to get all chatty with the news staff, but he was keenly interested in how we performed. Every day he would take a grease pencil and mark up the paper, and if you got a ‘good story,’ well, you sat a little taller that day.”
Freeman’s principles were strong, and he respected the readers and the independence of the newsroom, Tate told Arkansas Business. “I’m sure he appreciated a good month [of revenue] as much as any publisher did, but Mr. Freeman was all newsroom as far as we were concerned, and his brother Armistead was the one who handled advertising.”
A Naval Academy graduate of 1947 who served on an aircraft carrier, Freeman later studied for a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Chicago. He didn’t get the degree but discovered his life’s love there, fellow graduate student June Biber. The two were married in 1950 and Edmond returned to join the family business in Pine Bluff. She survives him, as do sons Andrew, Eric and David, daughter Gretchen and six grandchildren.
Foreman, who worked for Freeman from 1963 through 1968 and became a journalism professor at Penn State after his newspaper career, told the Commercial that Freeman stood for high standards and ethical integrity. “I stood for the same things. I think that’s how we got to be good friends. We had a true friendship that persisted as the years went on.”
Moritz, whose first job after graduating from Harding University was reporting for the Commercial in the 1980s, remembered a vibrant newsroom with a high dedication to reporting the news. The paper was also well known for its editorial voice, exemplified by Greenberg’s Pulitzer from 1969, for his reflections on race relations and integrating public schools. Edmond Freeman had the courage to embrace those anti-segregation editorials powerfully, said his daughter Gretchen.
Freeman was “a friendly employer," Moritz recalled. "He and his brother were old-school family newspaper people who felt a responsibility to the community, especially June. She was more involved in the community than Ed."
Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said Freeman led an important Arkansas newspaper during a crucial time for Arkansas and the South. "He had a keen eye for talent, and there's a long line of excellent journalists who got their start under Mr. Freeman in Pine Bluff," Wimberley told Arkansas Business. "The Arkansas newspaper industry is better today because of the efforts of Mr. Freeman and other community publishers."
Edmond Wroe Freeman III was born May 31, 1926, at the Freeman family home at 1220 Main Street in Pine Bluff. He grew into a lithe, athletic figure who excelled on the Naval Academy gymnastics team and later climbed some of the world’s tallest mountains, including Kilimanjaro, Mount Whitney and Mount Fuji. June joined in many of the climbing adventures.
“He lived an amazing life," his son David told the Commercial. "He sustained himself by enjoying conversations with people. He loved to talk about ideas. He was a great reader and talker and probably the world's greatest listener.”