On November 28, 2022, Jim Freeman passed away while walking on the land that he loved so much. He leaves behind his wife of sixty years, Helen, his loving family, and a community where he influenced many lives through his exemplary career as a teacher and coach.
Born on June 1, 1942 in Hamilton, Ontario, Jim moved west with his mother when he was five years old. When his mother remarried, he became a Freeman and gained new brothers and sisters, Judy, Barry, and Peggy, and eventually became a big brother to Ray and Joe. He grew up near Ferndale, WA, and graduated from Ferndale High School in 1960.
Jim met the love of his life when he was just thirteen years old. One day, as he was picking strawberries in the summer, he spied a cute girl a few rows over. He had never been even remotely interested in girls before, but when he saw her, it was like a lightning bolt. He was instantly smitten, and he just knew deep down in his heart that she was “the one.” He always said it was as if an angel picked him up and transported him; before he knew it, he was right next to her, picking berries into her flat. That cute girl was Helen Jonson, and pretty soon he was wooing her as only a thirteen-year-old boy can, saving her a seat on the berry bus and trying to impress her. Jim always said that Helen saved him, since she had high standards and he wanted to be worthy of her. Thanks to her influence, he stopped being one of those kids who pitched pennies at the back of the classroom, and started studying. Pretty soon, Helen was smitten, too. He continued loving and wooing her to the very end,
Jim and Helen married young, in August 1962 and soon grew their family to include three daughters, Kirsten, Lotte, and Holly. He finally got some sons when his daughters brought their partners into the family: Bjorn, Donatas, and Michael. It was Holly, the baby of the family, who gave Jim and Helen their precious grandchildren, Elise, Thereon, Quinnlan, and Caeden.
After graduating from Western Washington State College in 1964, Jim started his career as a teacher. The early years of Jim and Helen’s marriage were spent in Snohomish, WA, where Jim taught at the junior high school and trained to run marathons. There, he found a cohort of running companions and mentors. However, injuries plagued him and he eventually gave up his Olympic dreams.
Jim moved his young family from Snohomish to Deming, WA when he took a job teaching math at Mount Baker High School in 1970. Mount Baker was a rough place back then, so he struggled at first, but as he always said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” He dug in, and retooled his teaching style to be able to reach his students where they were. He spent most of his career at Mount Baker, where he also became a three season coach, coaching cross country, girls’ basketball, and boys’ track. The record of his coaching career stands on its own merit —he coached many teams and individuals to state competitions — but his true legacy as a coach is how many lives he influenced. Although he truly enjoyed the competitive aspects of sports (anyone who ever watched the Freeman brothers play basketball could attest to that), what mattered more to him were the opportunities that athletics provided to build character and relationships. For many of his students and players, he fulfilled the role of a father figure, which he took quite seriously.
After retirement from Mount Baker, he found that he wasn’t able to fill up his time with enough home projects, so he took a job teaching math at the Lummi School. He found this a tremendously rewarding challenge, which had him drawing on all of his years of teaching experience to develop a really innovative way to teach math in a classroom where everyone was at a different level. He truly treasured his time at Lummi, and considered his years there as the culmination of his teaching career. He also spent several years post-retirement serving on the Mount Baker School Board, where his insight as a teacher and his strategic mind came in handy as they entered a phase of proactive planning for the future. During this time, he also acted as an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at Whatcom Community College. So basically, during his retirement, he was as busy as ever.
For such an outwardly calm person, he was a very passionate man. He was passionate about math, and the teaching of math. He was passionate about Abraham Lincoln, and read extensively about this personal hero of his. He was especially passionate about nature. He loved the land that he lived on, and was always figuring out ways to preserve and enhance it, planting trees and bushes, creating a pond and protecting the surrounding wetland, building trails for access, and maintaining a welcoming habitat for a wide diversity of birds and other wildlife. He even protected spiders in the home, where he trained his daughters to gently transport spiders outdoors rather than squashing them on sight.
He loved to garden. Together with Helen, he created a large vegetable garden. Every year, he would work and amend the soil until I don’t know where you’ll find a finer tilth. In recent years, he grew an additional large vegetable garden in the lower pasture of his property for the community food bank. Ever the mathematician, he developed a math formula that helped him determine which seeds or plants could grow to maturity within the shorter growing season in this field. And it really did work.
Anyone who ever spent much time with Jim would know that he loved puns, the more groan-inducing, the better. He was known for his sense of humor; humor found its way into every aspect of his life. Of course, his favorite audience for a good joke or pun was Helen; making her laugh brought him a special kind of joy. You could always tell that he was preparing to spring a joke when that little smirk would appear.
Another thing that brought him joy was music. Almost every night at home, he would play his guitar and sing from the surprisingly wide range of songs that he knew. He even wrote his own songs, which some of us think could have been country music hits. He sang tenor in the choir at Immanuel Lutheran Church for many years, and would often perform golden oldies music in assisted living facilities.
Although he wasn’t raised to be particularly religious, as a grown man, he developed a strong Christian faith. Shortly after the family moved to Deming, they began attending church regularly, and he soon found a spiritual home there. His faith guided and comforted him for the rest of his life. He faithfully attended church services and was active in his church, but the truest practice of his faith could be seen in the millions of kindnesses that he performed throughout his life. He could find the sacred both in the sanctuary and in nature.
When someone would meet Jim, they could immediately sense what an honest and genuine person he was. He loved people. He was a great conversationalist and letter writer. When he had something to say, it was always worth hearing. But for all that he liked to talk, he was a great listener, too. When you had his attention, it felt like the sun shone on you. He will be deeply missed, not only by his loving and beloved family, but by his entire community.