As people walked by holding watermelon lagers and imperial pale ales, Ron Freeman stood there smiling.
Scanning the packed tasting room at Deep River Brewing Co. in Clayton, he shook his head from side to side in amazed appreciation. His handlebar mustache lifted with his smile.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said.
More than 1,000 people had come to the brewery for a fundraiser benefiting his family. A private person by nature, Freeman said he was initially skeptical about the event, held April 18, but he knew he needed the help.
He couldn’t handle this one on his own.
About a month earlier, Freeman’s wife of 20 years, Laura, had died unexpectedly of a massive stroke. She was 38.
Her death came at a time when Freeman was battling his own health issues. The 42-year-old father of two had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was prepping for surgery in early April.
So much happened so fast that he struggled to keep it together, Freeman said. But he did, with the support of friends and family.
“I can’t even put into words how good they have made me feel,” he said.
It all started last fall, when his primary-care doctor found elevated protein in his blood. He had further tests and a biopsy the week before Christmas.
Freeman waited anxiously over the holidays for the results. In early January, his doctor told him he had prostate cancer.
An MRI showed the tumor localized to his prostate. It had yet to spread, so his doctor recommended surgery to remove the tumor.
Then in mid-March, about a month before his scheduled operation, Freeman’s wife had a stroke. An ambulance rushed her to a hospital, where she died March 16.
Freeman said his wife had some health issues after being involved in a car crash in 2008. She had three back surgeries, the last one being a fusion in 2012 that left her disabled. However, her stroke was totally unexpected, he said.
“It just came out of nowhere,” he said.
After Laura’s death, Freeman said he tried to focus on his upcoming surgery on April 9.
Not long after the operation, friend and fellow Clayton police officer Jason Hutchins approached him about doing a fundraiser. Freeman was hesitant at first but agreed.
“When I first told him what we were trying to do for him, it kind of blew him away,” Hutchins said. “He said, ‘Why me?’”
Hutchins said Freeman’s response was a testament to his humble and quiet personality.
“He’s just a unique kind of guy,” said Hutchins, who works with Freeman in the Clayton PD’s special operations division.
“He serves his community well, and at the same time, he knows he can go home and be a good family man.”
At the fundraiser, people donated money by buying raffle tickets and playing in cornhole tournaments. Attendees could also pay to sink Clayton Police Chief R.W. Bridges and other town leaders in a dunking booth.
Deep River donated a percentage of its proceeds to Freeman’s family, as did Venero’s Pizza during a separate lunch event April 19.
Many of the people who came out were police officers in Clayton or other towns in Johnston and Wake counties. Pork Chops and Ham Hocks, a band made up of Wake County officers, played for free during the event.
Bridges, Clayton’s police chief, said he was the person who hired Freeman about 13 years ago. He said it was nice to see the law enforcement community rally for a fellow officer, one he called a “good guy” and “extremely intelligent.”
“He was hit with an awful lot here at one time,” Bridges said.
As he continued to grin in Deep River’s tasting room, Freeman moved his hand over the twisted corners of his elaborate mustache. While his facial hair proved to be a good conversation starter, it means more than that to him.
It’s a symbol of male health, he said, one he’s proud to display. After all, his doctors say he’s now cancer free.
Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104
Want to help?
People can donate to Ron Freeman and his family by writing a check to the Johnston County Fraternal Order of Police, P.O. Box 11, Clayton, N.C. 27528. Put “Ron Freeman fundraiser” in the note line.