Freeman contributed much through the Legislature as well as his outboard shop

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2001

It has been Oral Freeman Week in Alaska. The admired Ketchikan community and state leader died Oct. 6, at age 85, in his chair behind the counter at Alaska Outboard, where he had offered outboard, political and personal advice since 1955.

On the following Monday and Tuesday, flags flew at half staff on order of Gov. Tony Knowles to honor of the former state legislator and former trustee of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

On Wednesday, Alaskans began receiving their annual dividend, $1850.28 this year, thanks to Freeman, one of the architects of the fund.

On Thursday, hundreds of his Ketchikan townspeople joined his family at funeral services.

And on Saturday, a week after his death, the new Ketchikan Gateway Borough airport ferry, the Oral Freeman, was commissioned. The ferry was constructed at Ketchikan Shipyard, a facility for which Freeman obtained construction funds along with the help of former Rep. Terry Gardiner and the late state Sen. Robert Ziegler, both of Ketchikan.

When Freeman was elected to the Legislature, he sought no big titles, although they were offered to him. He said all he wanted was a "little old seat on the Finance Committee."

Every Alaskan owes him thanks for that as they cash their dividend checks. He served on a special committee that drew up the legislation designating how the fund would be organized and operated, including the annual dividend. He also authored two appropriations to the fund above its automatic deposits from oil revenues. One was for $900 million, the other for $1.8 million.

The significance of that? When the state received its first $900 million in 1968 from sale of leases in Prudhoe Bay, the Legislature, urged on by constituents, quickly blew it. That spending splurge without savings inspired creation of the permanent fund to automatically save a portion of oil revenue. So when the state had surplus revenue, Freeman's appropriations righted the wrong, in one case twice.

He served in the first Alaska Legislature in 1959-61 in which he and another Ketchikan representative, the late Ray Roady, sponsored the legislation authorizing a bond issue to build the state's ferry system. His fearlessness as a legislator cost him re-election in 1960. He supported paying legislators a modest salary instead of only the per diem that was paid during territorial days. He believed it was just the right thing to do. The voters didn't. But lawmakers today still receive a modest salary plus per diem.

Freeman bounced back. He was elected mayor of Ketchikan. And where a more flamboyant mayor was unable to convince residents that the streets should be paved, Freeman convinced them and streets were paved. A few old- timers might have remembered that as they rode with family and other mourners to the cemetery Thursday.

The Alaska legal system also owes Freeman thanks. Gov. Bill Egan appointed Freeman to the Alaska Judicial Council in 1970. For the first 10 years of statehood, that important body was almost inoperable. It lacked funds for carrying out its duties. The most important of those is to seek and nominate highly qualified persons to the Alaska bench from district courts to Supreme Court. It also is mandated by the state constitution to carry out studies and recommend improvements to the justice system

Freeman was re-elected to the Legislature in 1972 and from that "little old seat on the Finance Committee" he obtained a direct appropriation for the Alaska Judicial Council so it could operated as the state constitution intended, as it does to this day.

He also used that seat to pass legislation that set up sale of state land to private individuals and to finance hydroelectric projects from Kodiak to Ketchikan for what became the Four Dam Pool.

Freeman could fix anything, or offer accurate advice on how to fix it, from an outboard motor for some teenager to the Permanent Fund for no less than three governors, Jay Hammond, Steve Cowper and Walter Hickel.

He was a mentor to many seeking his advice on things personal or public. He allowed everyone seeking public office space in his store's window for displaying a sign regardless of party or advocacy. He believed that much in the American political system. But he added a humorous twist that is typically Freeman. The posters of losing candidates went into the backshop of Alaska Outboard where they were nailed to the wall or ceiling. They are there today, a tribute to those who tried.


Lew Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News and a former member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents.

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