Dick Freeland, owner of a group of Pizza Hut restaurants who had a long and deep involvement in Republican politics, died at home Sunday. He was 76.
In 1972 Freeland opened his first Pizza Hut on East State near Coliseum Boulevard in Fort Wayne. The business grew to include 48 Pizza Huts in Indiana and Ohio and four KFC restaurants. In 1995, Freeland traveled to Poland to advise the Pizza Hut team on improving their operations. He later became a partner in the Pizza Hut and KFC business in Poland and the Czech Republic.
In a 1984 interview with The News-Sentinel, Freeland recalled how he connected with Pizza Hut for the first time: He was an Iowa ironworker who took a part-time job at Pizza Hut to help pay off some vacation bills.
Five years later, he took the plunge into buying his own franchise in Fort Wayne. He opened his first Pizza Hut at East State and Coliseum boulevards in July 1972.
"We have to make money to do the things we want to do, but truthfully, money is not my motivation," he said at the time. "I enjoy doing what I do. There aren't many things families do together anymore. When I see people in one of my stores laughing, and you multiply that by 28, that's gratifying. It makes you want to get up the next day."
Freeland was heavily involved in local, state and national politics. He always was strongly focused on Indiana politics, officeholders and candidates, but he also contributed to candidates across the country from Wisconsin's Rep. Paul Ryan to former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president in 2008.
According to Federal Election Commission records, Freeland contributed more than $159,000 to candidates, campaign committees and political action committees in federal elections in the last 16 years. His wife, Deanna Freeland, contributed more than $47,000 in the same period, according to FEC records.
As news of Freeland's death spread, elected officials began issuing tributes to him.
"Dick Freeland lived the American dream,” wrote Gov. Mike Pence. “A loving family man, successful entrepreneur and businessman, Dick Freeland used his success to lift up his community, his state and his nation through generous philanthropy to countless worthy causes. His leadership and example will be deeply missed."
The Allen County Commissioners released this tribute to Freeland: “Allen County has lost an incredible leader, visionary and entrepreneur. Dick Freeland was a tireless champion for growth, opportunity and prosperity in our county. He had a unique ability to identify opportunities and spark collaborations that will continue to improve our community. We will miss Dick's leadership and friendship. We are deeply saddened but will always be grateful for his service and his many contributions to our community.”
He enjoyed hunting, fishing, traveling and breeding Arabian horses. In February 2013 he was awarded the Sagamore of the Wabash by Gov. Mike Pence, and Ducks Unlimited named him Conservationist of the Year. He served on numerous boards of directors and was instrumental in the founding of The Chapel.
He was born in Nevada, Mo. Surviving are his wife, Deanna; a daughter; a son; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchildren.