In Memoriam – Bill Freeman of Poole and McCaffery Sloughs – A Life Well Lived – Written and Photos by Wallace Kaufman
Few people will notice but we should all learn from the death of Bill Freeman on October 19th, five days short of his 85th year. He lived 10 miles southeast of Newport in the forest between Poole Slough and McCaffrey Slough. That’s where he was born and spent his entire life.
His mother, Evelyn Schirmer, was born in a cabin that stands on a knoll overlooking Poole Slough. The Schirmers were a German family that emigrated to the coast of Oregon in the 19th century. Evelyn married a newcomer, David Orr Freeman. Their first son, William, was born in a logger’s shack on October 24, 1935. When Bill came of age to go to school the one room schoolhouse in that forest had disappeared. Bill said that the county sent a man across the slough in a boat with several textbooks and told his mother that the books would be Bill’s entire education.
Bill was illiterate and he was embarrassed by that. But he never deserved the term “uneducated” – a term that so many people who hang college and university diplomas on their walls use to elevate themselves above those with whom they often disagree and whom they pity. Bill was much more than that.
I have a few diplomas on my own wall. What I learned at Oxford, 57 years ago, to earn my graduate degree and what I learned in the last eight years from being Bill Freeman’s only neighbor within a half mile, are very different. But I’m as grateful for what I learned about life from Bill as what I learned from Oxford. Knowing how to survive and how to live are the truest measures of the quality and utility of what a person has learned.
By these measures Bill Freeman was a learned man. Compare him to most people with high school or college degrees, the Ph.D.s who speak with ease, who drink fine wine and enjoy French cheese. Bill had a different variety of “higher education.”
The first time I saw Bill Freeman, I was living in the cabin where his mother was born because I had just bought the land, intending to build a new home. On that near freezing March morning I was looking out over the slough when I saw a small dinghy coming downstream. As it came closer I saw a tall sturdy old man in a knit cap and rubber boots rowing easily and steadily northward toward Yaquina Bay. That was Bill – making the 3 mile round trip to his mail box on North Bay Road.
The first time we talked was a week or two later when I was coming up to my place on the road that leads through Bill’s forest. He was standing tall, supervising the cutting of a dead tree some 3 feet in diameter and fifty feet tall – one of the few trees in his old growth forest that he ever cut.
Over the years we met often. Sometimes we did a bit of work together. I learned a lot from him.
Maybe Bill was successful here because he knew the place so well and didn’t have to change his life.
About four years ago I introduced Bill to a documentary film-maker working on a program about the estuaries. The film-maker asked Bill, “What’s changed about the slough since you can first remember?” Bill looked out over the slough and the marshes, thought hard, and answered, “Well, not a whole heck of a lot.” And that’s how he wanted it. That’s what he knew and devoted his life to.
What did Bill know that “educated” people seldom know? Bill knew how to make a living from the forest. He knew which alder trees make the best trolling poles for fishing boats. He couldn’t read books, but he could read the water and find his way in and out of the shoals at low tide. He could milk cows and separate cream from milk. He could reload rifle cartridges. He could graft apple trees that grew tons of apples every year. He could stalk elk and deer to feed his family. He had tamed deer to eat from his hand. In his later years he became a “picker,” roaming hundreds of acres of forest that his father had bought when Bill was a boy. He knew how to find the salal greens used in America and Europe for food and floral displays. He knew which ones to pick, how to cut and tie them and sell them to a local distributor for $1.80 a bunch. He couldn’t calculate how much he earned per hour – he didn’t care. He lived simply and said he “earned enough.”
Bill didn’t know accounting, but he knew how to run a business well enough to pay his bills and buy necessities. He also knew how to preserve a forest. He could have become a rich man by selling the big tall trees he inherited, but he used to say he wanted to preserve them – like a park. Because Bill kept those big trees it may be one of the few forests on the Oregon coast that shelters the rare marbled murrelet.
Bill also knew how to do “that thing” that often drives “educated” people to despair, tears and even suicide — how to live alone. Bill and his two younger brothers never married. They lost their father in 1962 when the four of them were logging a big fir that had fallen down a steep hill toward the marshes. Their father had worked up a big sweat and was breathing hard when he sat down on the log. He lit his pipe. It was the last puff of his life.
Bill’s two brothers died in the late 1990s of cancer. His mother, Evelyn Schirmer Freeman, lived on, running cattle in the marshes until she was about 90. She died in 2010 at age 98.
For the next 8 years Bill lived alone with his overfed and much beloved dachshund, Jingles. He once told me, “If it wasn’t for Jingles here I’d go crazy.” Bill, at 82, could still ride his motorbike like storm wind through the forest pathways with a high load of salal greens attached to a plywood platform behind his seat. His motorbike, his apples, his hand-tamed deer, his dinghy, and his dog Jingles were his greatest pleasures.
Eventually, Bill began to lose his sense of time and place. His cousin James Schirmer who lived across the slough had stepped in, as he had several times, to help Bill. James, a man of many practical talents, restored the spring pond near Bill’s house and brought running water back to the house and installed hot water. James rebuilt the ramp and gangway to the dock replacing what had become something like tight rope walking.
Two or three times a week James would bring Bill across the slough for a good meal and a hot bath, including a shave and a haircut. James brought him to his own home across the slough where Bill would live out the rest of his life.
James managed everything from Bill’s health to his home and forest. Despite Bill’s fading memory, James began a firewood business with Bill who was still sturdy and eager to work. James had to devote a good part of his own life to taking care of Bill as well as Jingles. Understanding Bill’s love of animals, James and a friend bought a pig and a goat for Bill to bottle feed. They enclosed a small garden for him to tend. They weren’t about to put him in a nursing home.
Two weeks ago Bill suffered a stroke and went to Corvallis for treatment. James brought him home again where he seemed to be recovering slowly, beginning to stand and walk on his own. But on October 19th death came for Bill early in the morning. Bill passed away while overlooking the forests and Poole Slough that had been his entire life.
Let “LWL” be his diploma certifying the highest achievement any of us can hope to reach – a Life Well Lived – that, along with the one that life awards to the Ph.D. and the illiterate alike – RIP, Rest In Peace. Bill earned both diplomas.
Bill Freeman’s remains will be interred in the Newport cemetery where he wanted to be next to his brothers, Ralph and Dale.