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A Privileged Life 

by William Stimson & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n its fund-raising campaign last month, the KSPS public television station ran a series of talks by one of those glib "how to succeed in life" guys. His name was Andy Andrews, if I recall correctly, and he preached a familiar line about how people make their own luck.


Andrews asserted that people who complain how bad life is are usually right, because their very whining drives away the kinds of people who might have helped them. On the other hand, he said, those who are convinced that life is decent and good have an attitude that attracts others who can help them -- causing life to be decent and good.


I am usually disposed to be skeptical of such claims. But that very week, I picked up the paper and learned that longtime Spokane businessman Clarence Freeman had died at the age of 96. Thinking about Clarence, it occurred to me that he was a perfect illustration of Andrews' theory. I have never seen a better example of an upbeat attitude toward life -- or a more impressive result.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & reeman was born in as poor a household as existed in Spokane. His mother, Alice Freeman, raised seven children by herself. And Freeman was black in a town where there were few blacks and a great deal of discrimination.


Yet Clarence Freeman became a successful developer, a respected civic leader and one of the few people privileged to have a building named for them -- in his case, the Freeman Center on Second Avenue.


I got to know Freeman two years ago because a mutual friend, Carl Liggins, suggested we get together and do an oral history with Freeman. Liggins, a professional cameraman, videotaped several afternoon visits I had with Freeman.


I began by asking what I presumed were the relevant questions -- more or less, "Tell me of instances in which people were unfair to you." Freeman answered these questions readily, and he could cite plenty of examples.


But it soon became clear to me that there was a disconnect between our views of his life. I presumed he would relate a tale of disadvantages and hardships. Freeman, on the other hand, while acknowledging the obstacles, thought of himself as particularly blessed with supporters and friends.


Most of all there was "Momma." Her son described Alice Freeman as "a solid-built lady, about 5-foot-2. Dark brown skin. An attractive lady." She was from a middle-class North Carolina family when she moved to Spokane to marry Clarence's father (who eventually went to work for the railroad and eventually disappeared -- no one knew where to).


She held all sorts of jobs. One she particularly enjoyed was working in a Riverside Avenue dress shop. But when the other sales ladies complained about working with a colored woman, she had to go.


Then Momma got a job she loved even more, as a seamstress employed at the Auditorium Theater, where she would help costume the casts of shows coming to town.


One week a famous opera singer came to Spokane. At the end of his run, he announced he was talking the entire cast and staff to dinner at the Davenport Hotel. After the crew was seated, a member of the hotel staff went to the host and told him the hotel did not serve coloreds -- meaning Momma. The opera star stood up. Everyone else stood up. Then they all walked down the street to another restaurant that would serve Momma.


Listening to Clarence relating this, I just imagine Momma relating the incident to her seven children. Nine decades later, when Clarence recalled it, it was a story not of meanness but of the triumph of decency.


That was Momma's first lesson: Don't dwell on those who try to hurt you; deal with people who will work with you.


Momma was the example. Some whites may have been stand-offish, but others beat a path to her kitchen to buy her famous pies and cobblers. The kids saw the respect white people had for their mother when people sat down to sample her goods. The millionaire Patsy Clark occasionally came to fetch pies for his wife and enjoyed sitting down for a talk and piece of pie with Momma.


She worked so hard and got such a reputation as a cook that "Everyone in town knew her." When one of Clarence's brothers, Robert (later a minister and civic leader in Billings) developed a crippling leg defect, Momma appealed to the local Masons. The Masons arranged to have Robert's legs fixed free of charge. Nine decades later, Clarence recalled the name of the doctor who did this for his brother: Dr. Eikenberry. It's one of the reasons he could not adopt a hostile attitude toward whites.


One of Momma's neighbors, Otto Vittrick, who owned a tire shop a block away, came for pies. Clarence got to know his son, Arthur Vittrick. After World War II, when Clarence became a building contractor, Arthur had gone into banking. "So when I came to the Seafirst [bank] downtown," said Clarence, "I had a friend." Momma's formula worked.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & larence's life is dotted by such stories. When he was working as a bellhop at the Ridpath Hotel, he and Momma both wanted to buy property to build houses, but they couldn't afford much. He mentioned this to one of the residents at the hotel, a man by the name of -- Clarence thinks -- DeGraff.


One day Clarence got a call to DeGraff's floor, and when the elevator opened, the man told him to get down to the County Courthouse right away and check out some property that was to be auctioned off. Clarence and his mother both bought lots there, and Clarence lived on that land for the rest of his life.


"He was one of the finest guys I ever met," Clarence said of DeGraff. "He had no reason to punch the elevator and tell me 'You'd better go take a look.'"


Except, perhaps, that Clarence was self-evidently Momma's son, the kind of person people liked to help out.

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