CHARLES C. FREEMAN – An Amazing Life
When Dr. Seuss wrote “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” he could have had Charles Freeman in mind. Charles was born on March 6, 1938, on a small farm located on the Louisiana-Texas border. His life has come full circle, and he is spending his retirement years on that same farm; but in the intervening three-quarters of a century, he has traveled the world, and participated in amazing and incredible experiences.
Charles’s first participation in higher education was in 1956 at Panola Jr. College (PJC) in Carthage, TX; his last was in 1986 at the J. F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. He began his career with the Veteran’s Administration in 1961 as a GS-7, and concluded it in 1999 as a member of the Senior Executive Service ranking above a GS-14.
He began his military career in 1963 as a “shave-tail,” Second Lt. (Viet Nam era), and concluded it in 1993 (post Desert Storm) as a “Bird,” Colonel. While he always considered Joaquin, TX, home, he has lived in six states, Puerto Rico, and Germany, residing in such diverse cities as Dallas, Shreveport, NYC, Chicago, Sheridan, WY, San Juan, P.R., Alexandria, LA, Bonham, TX, Frisco, TX, and Frankfort, Germany.
But Charles believes that the greatest distances he has traveled are not measured in miles or years, but in the dramatic changes he has witnessed, participated in, and contributed to. He is proudest of the contributions he has made to the rehabilitation of amputees and the severely paralyzed, and to the quality of care received by service men and women in both military and veterans’ hospitals. Over the course of his civilian and military medical careers, he directly contributed to the creation and/or development of a number of professions, including Rehabilitation Medicine, Kinesiology, Kinesiotherapy (Applied Kinesiology or Therapeutic Exercise), Recreation Therapy, Sports Medicine, Prosthetics, Orthotics, Cosmetic Prosthetics, Emergency Medical Technology (EMTs), Physicians’ Assistant (PA), Biomedical and Rehabilitation Engineering.
When Charles began work as a therapist with the Veterans’ Administration, metal hooks and wooden legs were still standard, and quadriplegics lived relatively short, rigidly constrained, and pain-ridden lives, confined to beds. In those days, wheelchairs were exactly that, chairs with wheels, poorly suited to the needs of most handicapped. Charles was privileged to be Research and Education Officer with the V A Prosthetics and Orthotics Research Center during the 1970’s where he introduced a group of out-of-work aerospace engineers to the problems and challenges of the severely handicapped. Their response and subsequent research and development has given us the concept of the “Bionic Man” (or Woman), and greatly expanded horizons for the severely physically handicapped. Every time Charles sees one of the new all-terrain, or sports “wheelchairs,” he smiles in appreciation of the progress made.
It was Charles’s idea to hire artists from the NYC art schools to design and construct facial prostheses for victims of disfiguring accidents or surgery, a suggestion, which gave birth to a profession. In the early 70’s he traveled across the US, establishing the first college level education programs for Prosthetists and Orthotists (mostly 2 year degrees). Prior to that time, the fabricating and fitting of artificial limbs and braces was done by workmen trained in a variety of trades and crafts, but lacking any systematic professional preparation for working with crippled patients. Today, B.S. and graduate degrees are granted in these professions.
Some of his best memories are of times when he defied conventional wisdom, and allowed Veteran patients to do what others believed impossible. As a therapist at the Shreveport VAMC, he promised a bilateral amputee (missing both arms and both legs) that the Veteran, a cowboy, could ride in the Houston Fat Stock Show Parade if he just worked hard enough. When the VA administrators were afraid of legal responsibility, Charles gave the Cowboy official leave, and they went to Houston and rode in the parade. That cowboy Veteran went on to be a role model for hundreds of amputees, traveling the US for Veteran organizations, and becoming the subject of a TV documentary.
In1974, Charles supervised, helped arrange, and participated in the first amputee skiing expedition at Steamboat Springs. Today, we are accustomed to news stories reporting the accomplishments and physical achievements of the severely physically handicapped, but in the 60’s and 70’s, conservative policies and precedents created major roadblocks, and Charles delighted in removing a few of these.
New York in the 1970’s was deeply involved in civil rights for all, and the handicapped were among the groups who benefitted. As a consultant, Charles helped provide guidance for legislation for wheelchair bound patients, amputees, and paralyzed individuals. In conjunction with this work, Charles conducted seminal research into the effectiveness and safety of adaptive driving equipment marketed across the United States, and into state protections and regulations for handicapped drivers. The New York Academy of Science published his findings in a 1974 article entitled, “Evaluation of Adaptive Automotive Driving Aids for the Disabled.” The article still is cited in standards for construction and regulation.
Charles’s most humorous experience in patient mobility took place at the Castle Point VAMC, in the Center for Paralyzed Veterans. Engineers were exploring ways that totally paralyzed veterans could control wheelchairs. They decided to use glasses that sensed eye movements to control the chair. When the patient looked up, the chair moved forward; when he looked down, it stopped; eyes left meant turn left; eyes right meant turn right. The system worked perfectly until a pretty nurse walked down the hallway, and all the wheelchairs spun around. The engineers decided to use a pneumatic straw with a blow-suck control.
The first day that men who had been paralyzed for years received their adaptive controlled wheelchairs was truly an “Independence Day.” What the hospital didn’t expect was their “declaration;” they immediately took off down the highway to the local pub, prepared to really celebrate their first day of freedom.
When Charles entered the US Army Reserve Medical Corp as a lowly 2nd Lt., corpsmen ‘s primary responsibility was loading wounded men onto trucks and transports. Most wounded didn’t live to reach the MASH units made famous by the long-running TV show. Over Charles’s military career, the entire organization for delivery of military medical care was revised and revamped. Emergency Medicine, as a specialty, emerged first in the military context. Corpsmen became our first trained EMT’s and eventually our first PA’s. Their duties expanded, and the numbers of lives saved was exponential. Medical evacuation helicopters with trained paramedics eventually made the MASH unit obsolete, and provided medical care that greatly increased survival rates. As a corollary, the numbers of severely handicapped veterans needing rehabilitation services also increased dramatically.
In 1976, in recognition of Charles’s outstanding contributions to education and research in prosthetics and orthotics, the Secretary of Veteran Affairs, asked that he accept an assignment in the V.A. Medical Center Director training program. After training at VA Medical Centers in NYC, Wyoming, Chicago, and Dallas, Charles served as Director of V.A. Medical Centers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Alexandria/Pineville, LA, and Bonham, TX. In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Charles served jointly as Medical Center Director and V.A Regional Office Director, administering annual budgets in excess of $400 million.
Charles was a pioneer in the creation of outpatient service centers to meet Veterans’ needs as close to their homes as possible. He created outpatient clinics on St. Croix, VI, and on the south shore city of Ponce in Puerto Rico, saving taxpayers money, and Veterans many hours of travel. In Louisiana, he continued this pattern, establishing outpatient services in Crowley, LA, and a mobile clinic, which took screening services to Veterans in Central Louisiana.
Similarly, Charles was attuned to the special needs of Veterans, and responded by creating service delivery systems appropriate to their needs. In Puerto Rico, he created a Center for Blind Veterans, and in Bonham, he established a domiciliary for homeless veterans. In Puerto Rico, Alexandria, and Bonham, he oversaw the creation and construction of specialized facilities for aging Veterans.
Because of his background in Rehabilitation Medicine, Charles was always alert to opportunities for offering better quality of life and interesting experiences for his patients. These included some relative large projects, like building a fishing lake at the Alexandria VAMC and an exercise recreational park at the Bonham VAMC, and smaller innovations, like pet therapy, gardening therapy, and music, art, and rocking chair therapies.
The high point of Charles’s military career occurred in 1990 when the 94th General Hospital was activated in support of Operation Desert Storm. As Executive Officer for the 1000 bed General Hospital, Charles, left the Alexandria VAMC to oversee one of the first major call-ups of a large reserve medical unit. The difficulties and challenges were not trivial. Nurses had to leave children, including infants; physicians in private practice had to find alternative care-givers for their patients; husbands and wives serving together had to provide for their children and dependents. Charles took the 972-man unit to Europe, where he remained until the last troops were recalled. He was literally the last man off the final flight. In Europe, his troops were stationed in hospitals in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Great Britain, replacing active duty medical personnel who were serving in Kuwait and Iraq. While stationed in Frankfort, he visited and oversaw his scattered troops.
Charles’s future could not have been predicted by the circumstances of his youth. He was the fifth of six sons born to Larnell Lee (L.L.) and Britt Annie Nunley Freeman. His father had been born on the same farm, and worked at the local sawmill. Shortly after the birth of the 6th and last child, a tragedy beset the family. L.L. developed an infected appendix, and under relatively primitive medical conditions it ruptured. For weeks it appeared that the sole support for the family would die, leaving them destitute. Against all odds, L.L. survived, but he was emaciated and greatly weakened. He moved his family to Houston and sought work in the booming, wartime ship building industry. A kind-hearted foreman saved the family by giving L.L. an easy job until he recovered. The family lived in a motel that had been converted to wartime housing.
They returned to Joaquin in time for Charles to begin first grade. The six Freeman boys all played football and attended the First United Methodist Church. The younger boys, Charles and Dennis, idealized their older brothers. Charles’s talents as a negotiator and peacemaker, were honed in his youth, sandwiched between two competitors, Dennis and Dale. Neither of his parents completed high school, but they wanted more for their children.
Three of his four older brothers were in service during the Korean War, two in the Air Force in Korea, and one in the Army in Germany. Charles and his younger brother, Dennis, were especially close. At 135 pounds, Charles played Center on a District Championship football team and a bi-district basketball team. In Charles’s senior year, his brother Dennis was the star running back. During summers, Charles worked as a lifeguard at a popular recreational spot, Crystal Lake. At Crystal Lake, on May 29, 1957, he met his future wife, Frances Jackson, of Logansport.
Charles attended Panola Junior College in Carthage, TX, on a baseball scholarship (catcher), later driving a school bus, transporting students from Logansport and Joaquin to Carthage. After earning his AA degree, he transferred to Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA. He chose NSU because Frances was already enrolled there, and because NSU offered him a job as lifeguard in the Natatorium.
Earning enough money to stay in college was always a challenge. Charles enjoyed the glamor of being a lifeguard, but accepted a better paying job with the intermural athletic program, later becoming a member of the Campus Security Force. That job provided a good income, but really crazy hours, and Charles suffered from a familial problem of sleepwalking. He was blessed with a roommate who prevented him, on more than one occasion, from venturing out of the dormitory wearing only his underwear, hat, and gun.
In Aug., 1959, when Charles and Frances were married, his roommate was the official photographer. The newlyweds moved into “Vet Village” at NSU. Their daughter, Jacqueline Lee, was born in May, the next week Charles received his B.S. Two weeks later, he began his master’s program with a certification course in rehabilitation medicine at Memphis State University. That fall, the little Freeman family returned to NSU, where Frances and Charles pursued graduate degrees. Charles supported the family by teaching and coaching basketball at St. Mary’s High School in Natchitoches.
After receiving his MS degree in administration, Charles was employed by the Dallas VAMC as a Corrective Therapist. By a strange twist of fate, his older brother Dale was employed at the same time in the same department. On the day JFK was shot, Charles worked his last shift at the Dallas VAMC. The following week, he transferred to the Shreveport VAMC, where he worked until 1970. In Shreveport, Charles first became Chief of Corrective Therapy, Chief of Recreation Therapy, then Coordinator of Rehabilitation Medicine, and finally Chief of Prosthetics, Orthotics and Sensory Aids. In 1970 he accepted the position of Research and Education Officer for the VA Prosthetics Center in New York City, where he worked until 1976, before entering the VA Hospital Director training program. Subsequently, he worked at the Sheridan, WY, VAMC, the Westside VAMC in Chicago, the Dallas VAMC, the San Juan, PR VAMC, the Alexandria, LA VAMC, the Bonham, TX VAMC, and the Southeastern Regional Network. He retired from the VA in 1999.
Charles’s mother, Britt Annie Nunley Freeman, always wanted one of her six sons to become a preacher. She was disappointed (at least for 40 years) when Charles chose another career. In 1996, she was overjoyed when Charles received his call to enter the ministry. Charles had worked closely with VA Chaplain programs, creating a Chaplain training program at the Alexandria VAMC. Over the years, he had always been active in Church programs, and was especially effective in leading youth groups. In 1997, he became a local pastor in the United Methodist Church, serving first in the Texas Conference, and then in the Louisiana Conference at Bethel United Methodist Church in Logansport, LA. This was one of the most rewarding and cherished periods of his life.
In 2003, tragedy struck the Freeman family, Stephen Joseph McGrade, husband of their younger daughter, Denise Ruth Freeman McGrade, was stricken with esophageal cancer, and passed away in August. Charles and Frances went to Frisco, a northern suburb of Dallas, to spend a few weeks helping their daughter and grandchildren, and remained for ten years. Charles assumed a father’s role in the lives of his grandchildren, Patrick and Sarah McGrade. Charles and Frances remained in Frisco until the children completed high school, before returning to Logansport and Joaquin. During their years in the Dallas area, their oldest granddaughter, Veronica Lee Perez, lived near-by and attended SMU.
The Freemans have two daughters, Jacqueline Lee Perez, a teacher of English literature in Weston, FL and Denise Ruth McGrade, a dentist, in Frisco, TX. Their son-in-law, Col. Angel Louis Perez is retired from the US Army, and is a consultant for the U.S. military. They have four grandchildren, Veronica Lee Perez Mueller, a dentist in Frisco, TX; Patrick Stephen McGrade, a first year student at Texas Tech School of Medicine; Carlos Louis Perez, an artist in Frisco, TX; and Sarah Katherine McGrade, a junior studying communications at UNT in Denton, TX.
This is an exciting time for the Freeman Family. On Jan. 2, 2016, Patrick will wed his fiance Samantha Ann Duran. Charles and Frances will officiate at the service, to be held in the First Baptist Church of Frisco. In February, 2016, their granddaughter Veronica Lee Perez Mueller and her husband John Christian Mueller are expecting their first child (Charles’ and Frances’ first great grandchild).
Charles and Frances are currently joint operators of Freeman Farms, which includes properties in Shelby and Panola Counties in Texas and DeSoto, Red River and Caddo Parishes in Louisiana. Charles has reassembled the Texas farm, which his grandfather Cullen Freeman originally owned over a century ago. The farm backs up to wetlands belonging to the State of Texas along the Sabine River. From their home it is possible to walk to the River and look across to the Louisiana shore. Charles likes to say it is really East Texas (as east as you can get and still be in Texas).
The Freeman’s are active in the First United Methodist Church of Joaquin, in the Logansport Chamber of Commerce, and in other civic and service organizations. Charles is a life member of the American Legion; the Disabled American Veterans (DAV); the American Veterans (AMVETS); the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW); the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV); and the Forty and Eight; and an honorary member of the Marine Corps Veterans Association, and the Paralyzed Veterans’ Association.