Former Ketchikan legislator was active to the end

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2001

KETCHIKAN (AP) -- Oral Freeman was at Alaska Outboard on Saturday, just as he'd been on many days since buying the shop in 1955.

But Saturday would be his last day talking with people and giving advice at the venerable Tongass Avenue location.

Freeman, a Ketchikan personality, politician and a driving force behind establishment of the Alaska Permanent Fund, died of heart failure later that day at the age of 85.

News of the six-term legislator's passing quickly spread through the state.

''Oral Freeman was one of my heroes,'' former Gov. Jay Hammond told the Ketchikan Daily News. ''His passage, in my view, leaves a great, smoking crater in the annals of Alaska history.''

Born Nov. 24, 1915, in Oklahoma, Freeman served in the U.S. Army before arriving in Alaska in 1945 with his wife, Fay, and sons, Charles.

He worked as a civilian machinist at Elmendorf Air Force Base and then came to Ketchikan in 1946, working here as a commercial fisherman and territorial highway patrolman.

His second son, James, was born in Ketchikan. In 1955, he bought Alaska Outboard Service and quickly became involved in local and state politics.

He was elected to the Ketchikan City Council in 1956 and to the First Alaska Legislature in 1959. Another term on the City Council followed, beginning in 1964, and he was elected as mayor in 1967.

His major accomplishment in three years as mayor was to pave all city streets, wrote Lew Williams Jr. in a brief biography of Freeman several years ago. Prior to his term, only the main thoroughfares had been paved.

Freeman was re-elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 1972 and served there until 1982. During that time, he was a member of the House Finance Committee, from which Freeman pushed for the creation of the Permanent Fund that would preserve a portion of state oil revenues for future use.

He served on the special committee that wrote the legislation establishing the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. Jim Kelly, the corporation's director of communications, said Freeman insisted that it be organized with a conservative investment strategy.

And it was Freeman who led the drive for the first major appropriations to the fund -- $900 million in 1980 and more than $1 billion in 1981.

''Those two appropriations, they really jump-started the fund,'' Kelly said.

Clark Gruening served with Freeman in the House during the mid-1970s. He said Monday that Freeman was a key figure in bulking up the permanent fund and making it what it is today.

''I have a lot of respect for Freeman and his work on a number of issues, including the Permanent Fund,'' Gruening said. ''He was a man of strong opinions and was never afraid of voicing them.''

Among Freeman's other achievements were his efforts to obtain funding for the state ferry Aurora, which serves southern Southeast Alaska, and funding for hydroelectric projects in Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell and Sitka.

After Freeman left the Legislature, he continued to have a role with the Permanent Fund. Gov. Steve Cowper in 1986 appointed Freeman to the permanent fund board of trustees. However, when Freeman disagreed with Cowper on how to use Permanent Fund earnings, Cowper declined to reappoint him.

Gov. Walter Hickel did reappoint Freeman to the board in 1991.

''He was a great visionary for Alaska,'' Hickel said Monday. ''He had a good picture of where Alaska should go.''

Freeman served on the board until 1995.

Back in Ketchikan, just as he had for years when not away on state business, he could be found at Alaska Outboard.

''He always had time for people,'' said Chip Porter, a charter captain who has frequented the shop for years.

Freeman will be honored Saturday when the new airport ferry is named after him. The vessel will be christened at noon Saturday at the Ketchikan Shipyard.

Funeral services for Freeman are scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Ketchikan.

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