By the time Clara Smith Freeman was 20 she had already experienced more tragedies than many endure in a lifetime.
The first was a fire accidentally set by two of her younger brothers – everyone remained unscathed, but their house burned to the ground. The second was the death of a younger sister, run over by a school bus driven by their older brother. She was 10 when the child was brought inside to die on the kitchen table. In college, her roommate committed suicide.
“Those kinds of experiences, they either make you stronger or not, and in Mama’s case they made her stronger,” said Franklin Freeman Jr., the oldest of her five children. (He is a former associate justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court and a former senior official in the administrations of governors Jim Hunt and Mike Easley.)
Freeman died last month at the age of 104. She was Dobson’s oldest resident, having lived there since her marriage to Frank Freeman in 1934.
Tenacity of spirit
Freeman seems to have embodied the tenacity of spirit and self-sufficiency that has come to define what has been called the “Greatest Generation,” having survived not only personal tragedies but tragedies that affected the entire nation, such as the Great Depression and two world wars.
Born in Reidsville as one of eight children, her rural upbringing equipped her with not only life skills, such as how to make clothes (she made clothing for her five children), can and freeze food and keep a kitchen garden, but how to embrace hard work and develop virtues such as patience and appreciation for what she had.
She came from solid stock. Freeman’s parents continued to run their farm until they were in their mid-80s, her son Franklin said. The farm had been in her family since 1835, and during her early childhood there was no electricity or indoor plumbing – instead, they had oil lamps, a natural spring for fresh water and an outhouse. The family commuted to and from church in a horse-drawn surrey, and hot bricks wrapped in the floorboards to keep their feet warm in the winter months. Freeman joined her siblings in chores such as milking cows.
All of her siblings continued their studies beyond high school, and Freeman was the first of the girls to attend a four-year college. As her daughter-in-law, Annette Lareau-Freeman (wife of son Samuel Freeman), reminded folks during her funeral, Freeman graduated from college when only 10 percent of the population did so, the overwhelming majority being men.
She earned a degree in home economics from what was then called Women’s College, now UNC-Greensboro, and she promptly started a teaching career that would span generation after generation.
Teacher to generations
It has been noted to her family members that she virtually taught everyone in Dobson in one capacity or another, either as a home economics teacher early in her career, or later teaching biology, civics and other classes she was asked to teach.
“As a student, you heard her name and you knew automatically there would be no monkey business,” said Dan Jackson, a former student and friend of son Franklin. “And I cannot recall ever hearing any disturbances in her classroom, ever needing to raise her voice.”
Frances Gillispie Scott, 86, recalls having Freeman as her home economics teacher and not once losing patience with her students.
Her legacy as an educator went beyond those formal curriculums, however.
Like many of her contemporaries, Freeman could stretch a dollar. While raising their family, she and her husband kept a cow and chickens on their downtown Dobson property (they lived with her in-laws during the first years of their marriage to save the $12,000 needed to build their home) and she would make clothes from the sacks in which they bought animal feed.
She also modeled hard work, somehow managing to resume her teaching career with five young children at home. Though they had help Monday through Friday in the form of a live-in maid, Freeman would get the children to church on time every week, afterwards frying chicken and baking two fruit pies for Sunday supper.
“When I was seven years old she had me get a paper route,” Franklin Freeman said with a chuckle. “She did not want any idleness around the house.”
Her four sons all had jobs out in the community, and her daughter was recruited to help at home.
Optimism and an orchard
One of her 11 grandchildren, Mary Clare Freeman, has also gone into teaching and frequently called upon Freeman for advice. When her charges proved particularly challenging, Freeman offered this: “Stay strong, hold your ground, they are testing you. It will get better.” And it did.
At the age of 90, Freeman planted an orchard on her property in Dobson. Knowing it would take at least five years for the trees to bear fruit, she was not sure she’d live to make pies with their bounty, but she did it anyway.
A number of her family members remarked that this gesture showed how positive Freeman’s outlook was. If nothing else she would leave it behind for posterity’s sake, for she valued her family above all else .
For her eldest grandchild, Meg Whalen, this orchard exemplified what Freeman’s life was all about.
“It was not about what she herself would reap. It was about doing all that you could do for as long as you could do it,” Whalen said.