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DeBow Freed: A life of service

Bill Urban
02/10/2020
DeBow Freed: A life of service

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Under normal circumstances, DeBow Freed would never have become a college president.

In 1974, hostility to the Vietnam War and everything military was at fever pitch, and Freed was a West Point graduate who had served on Gen. William Westmoreland’s staff in South Vietnam. But 1974 was not a normal year. Monmouth had been badly hit by a deadly trifecta: the end of the draft, steep inflation from OPEC oil policies, and the opening of state-supported junior colleges. Enrollment had plummeted, morale had sunk and there was talk of what to do when the College closed. When President Dick Stine resigned, we could hardly get applications to succeed him.

DeBow’s degree in physics was solid, with a concentration on nuclear engineering — a subject that might be very relevant if he had chosen to remain in the Army. But he had found a new calling (a carefully chosen word for a devout Presbyterian) in higher education. He had left the Army after teaching at West Point to become academic dean at Mount Union College.

When he came for the interview at Monmouth, he knew the name of every person on the faculty and staff. When asked a question, he would often point to an individual and say, “Just as I told (fill in the name), this is how I see the situation.” He had memorized everything we had sent him. He turned down the initial offer, however, not believing that he could turn the College around. That was when a number of individuals privately intervened. Eileen Loya, who had been the extremely efficient secretary for the past two presidents, called him to say that it was his Christian duty to come to Monmouth. Others made a similar plea.

DeBow’s military background served him well. Nobody was better organized than DeBow Freed and his wife, Kitty. His attention to detail was phenomenal, his gracious manner the opposite of the public stereotype of officers, and his concern for others was no act. However, whenever a question was directed to his life experiences, he turned it into a query about the questioner’s interests. If one can be “modest to a fault,” DeBow Freed was a very flawed man. But the greatest complaint was that he wore a blue suit every day and probably slept in a necktie.

DeBow and Kitty knew the names of spouses and children. They were at every activity — he made a mental check of attendance. If a faculty member was absent from a concert, DeBow would send a note asking how he could help make participation easier. Attendance improved. He knew, it seemed, the name of every student. He ate in the cafeteria almost every day, sitting with students and asking about how classes were going and about campus life in general. He was in every building every day, going from office to office.

His desk was always clean. Every matter was sent to the proper administrator with instructions on how to handle it. Staff meetings were held early in the morning so as not to interfere with the work day. Nobody ever said that working for him was easy! But many admired him, and some came to love his fairness and dedication.
If he came by your office and heard a concern, he would pull a card out of one pocket of his blue suit, jot down what you had said, and put it in the other pocket. The next day you would get a note saying what he had done about it. The day after that you would get a note asking if the concern had been acted upon.

Many did not understand his sly method of distracting complaints. I once asked him why he kept the tree in the middle of the outfield. He smiled and said that if he removed it, the athletic department would ask for something he couldn’t do anything about — people would always complain, so pick out the issues carefully. Similarly, in sending a proposal to a faculty committee, he advised me to leave in some obvious mistake — committees will always want to change something, he said, so give them something that won’t change what you need to do.

DeBow’s prayers at the start of every faculty meeting were so long and so pertinent that one either despaired of living through them or felt totally unworthy of teaching here. Once he responded to a query about salaries with a sly smile — faculty pay was always miserable, but the budget was balanced, thus guaranteeing that we would have jobs. He said that in the next year we would be paid $60,000 (about three times what we were currently earning). One third would be in the form of living in a town like Monmouth, where we could live within walking distance of campus and housing was affordable, where our children were safe and had good schools, where we liked our neighbors. Another third came from teaching at a good small liberal arts college, doing what we loved, with students who respected us. The rest we got in cash.

After every social event, DeBow and Kitty would go over the guest list and write down something that each guest had said or been interested in. They would bring these up the next time they met those people. Kitty was an Army brat. She knew how important an officer’s wife was to her husband’s career. She was extremely effective — see We Were Soldiers (2002) again. Not everyone appreciated this.

The Freeds left in 1979 to save another college, saying that we should get a president who could better define the College’s purpose. That was Bruce Haywood.

DeBow’s reticence to speak about himself was legendary. In 2009, a reporter from Findlay, Ohio, called me to ask for an interview; he had been unable to get DeBow to say anything beyond that he was currently president of his third college. Even when Kitty became ill and died, he had, literally, soldiered on.