Jeff Rankin  |   Published February 09, 2020

Remembering DeBow Freed

Monmouth’s ninth president brought focus, earnest leadership to post during turbulent 1970s.
  • DeBow Freed and his wife, Kitty.“Dr. Freed was a powerhouse of a man,” said Board of Trustees Chairman Mark Kopinski ’79. “He brought military-style rigor to the College administration at a time of great need. He was also a very compassionate man who believed in a divine presence.”

MONMOUTH, Ill. – DeBow Freed, the ninth president of Monmouth College, who successfully guided the institution through challenging economic times in the 1970s, died Feb. 8, 2020, at his home in Ada, Ohio. He was 94.

“Dr. Freed was a powerhouse of a man,” said Monmouth Board of Trustees Chairman Mark Kopinski ’79, who was a student while Freed was president. “He brought military-style rigor to the College administration at a time of great need. He was also a very compassionate man who believed in a divine presence. I had the occasion to exchange letters with him over the last few years. He was extremely interested in the board’s plans for the College and had high praise for the quality of the College magazine.”

When Freed assumed the presidency in 1974, Monmouth was struggling with enrollment and finances because of debt incurred from federal construction loans. About 20 percent of the faculty had been released.

By the time he left Monmouth in 1979 to become president of Ohio Northern University, Freed had created a new sense of community, stabilized enrollment, balanced the budget and doubled annual giving.

Along with his wife, Catherine, known as “Kitty,” Freed built an attitude of goodwill in the local community, which extended to the Presbyterian Church, high school counselors and a network of alumni. His administration was also marked by growth in academic, cultural and spiritual opportunities for students as well as greater alumni involvement.

“Kitty and DeBow Freed served their country long and well in two fundamental ways – as a military couple and then by investing their lives in empowering young people through higher education,” said Monmouth President Clarence R. Wyatt. “They left every institution they served stronger and better able to carry out its mission than they found it. And in that, DeBow and Kitty are wonderful role models for Lobie and me, as well as anyone else who hopes to lead in American higher education.”

A West Point graduate, Freed spent seven years as an Army officer in Japan, West Germany, Korea, Vietnam and Iran, served as chief of the nuclear branch of the Defense Atomic Support Agency, and taught physics at the U.S. Military Academy. At Monmouth, he applied firm fiscal discipline with a gentle hand. He regularly inspected campus facilities, making notes — military style — on 3-by-5-inch cards.

But he also brought academic rigor to the institution, having left military service in 1969 to become dean of Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. A nuclear engineer, Freed had written articles on national security policy, energy policy and political science. During his tenure, he encouraged Monmouth faculty to think outside the traditional teaching confines of the classroom and laboratory and develop learning opportunities linked to government and industry.

As much as they had enjoyed the military lifestyle at West Point, the Freeds believed they could make additional contributions to church-related higher education and made the decision in 1969 to accept the position at Methodist-affiliated Mount Union. Content in their new home, the Freeds initially declined the offer to come to Monmouth, but that was before a persistent Peter Bunce, who was a Monmouth trustee, visited Freed during a business trip to Ohio.

After five years at Monmouth, Freed’s announcement in 1978 that he had accepted the presidency of Ohio Northern University in Ada was a surprise to the campus community, but given his military style of leadership, it was apparent that he considered the job “mission accomplished.”

As emeritus professor William Urban wrote in his history of Monmouth College: “When DeBow Freed left in 1979, everyone knew that Monmouth College was losing a giant. Yet it was time to part, it seemed. He had done what Monmouth College needed. He needed a new challenge, and, he said, Monmouth needed a different leader — one who could do for the curriculum what he had done for the finances and social life. … It was time to move on.”

(For a personal reminiscence about President Freed by Professor Urban, click here.)

Freed served 20 years as president of Ohio Northern, where he increased its endowment from $7 million to $115 and built a large fine arts center that was named in honor of Freed and his wife.

At the age when most college presidents were content to retire, in 2003 Freed became president of a troubled nearby institution, the University of Findlay (Ohio). Not surprisingly, he helped turn that institution around as well. Freed retired from Findlay in 2010, following which he and Kitty made Ada their retirement home. Kitty died in 2016, but he continued to visit his office regularly.

Freed was last on the Monmouth campus in 1998 for the inauguration of President Richard Giese. The College presented him with an honorary degree in 1987.

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