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Freeland made, and spent, his dough the old-fashioned way

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Big house shouldn't obscure hard work, little-known acts of kindness, friends say

Thursday, October 24, 2013 - 11:47 am

When I wrote about Allen County's 10 most-valuable private homes a decade ago, it wasn't even a contest: At $5.87 million, Dick and Deanna Freeland's 19-room house and 40-acre estate on West Hamilton Road was assessed for nearly $4 million more than the runner-up.

In a nation increasingly comfortable with celebrating mediocrity and condemning success, some will read that paragraph and smugly dismiss Freeland as just another guy who got ostentatiously rich by somehow failing to pay “his fair share.”

But the facts – and people who knew him well – tell an entirely different story about a struggling steel worker whose willingness to take a risk, work hard and treat others fairly created a Pizza Hut mini-empire that, by the time of his death from cancer Sunday at age 76, operated 52 stores, paid taxes and provided jobs for about 2,500 people.

To former Allen County Sheriff and Republican mayoral candidate Joe Squadrito, Freeland was a good and generous friend – even if Squadrito couldn't always benefit from it.

“I met him at the Pizza Hut on State Boulevard years ago. I didn't know he owned the store, but they always gave cops half off the price. But our regulations (in the Sheriff's Department) wouldn't allow that. (Freeland) was a self-made man, a hard worker, and I think he respected that (I couldn't accept his discount).”

That “self-made” tag seems to irk some people (including our president), and I suspect Freeland would be the first to credit his employees for the success he ultimately achieved. But even in my first interview with him nearly 30 years ago, it was clear that Freeland earned his dough the old-fashioned way.

A struggling 30-year-old Iowa ironworker in 1967, Freeland figured he'd gone as far in that business as he could. “Pizza Hut was a young company and seemed like a good opportunity . . . (so) I called and asked them to begin at the Illinois border, head east and tell me what counties were available,” he told me.

Fort Wayne was the first large available market, so he borrowed $5,500 from his dad, sold his house for $11,000 and bought the franchise, opening his first store on State in 1972.

And, just like a pizza in an oven, from that seed rose the business that allowed Freeland to help others large and small.

Squadrito remembered how Freeland struck up a conversation with an apparently homeless woman in an Indianapolis hamburger joint. “He was sitting there talking to her, asking her if she needed something to eat,” he said. “I asked him about it later and he just said, 'company's company.' He was comfortable with everyone. He never put on airs.”

Today, David Long is president pro tem of the Indiana Senate. But he might not be a senator at all if not for Freeland.

After just two years in the Senate Long discovered he didn't have enough time left for his legal practice. Needed a corporate attorney at the time, Freeland -- long known for his support of conservative politicians -- hired Long. That was 15 years ago, and “(Freeland) never once asked me to do anything for him in the

Legislature. He never wanted any personal benefit from his political involvement,” Long said.

“He wanted common-sense government. What's the right thing to do?” Squadrito added.

Long said Freeland's business expertise paid dividends in his leadership of the Senate, in the form of staff changes and other efficiencies. “Freeland liked independent thinkers, good human beings. He could smell it out pretty quickly (if you weren't), Long added.

Freeland's support of the Chapel, a large non-denominational church in Aboite Township, is relatively well known. Far less well known, they agreed, was his support for IPFW and other local institutions, not to mention employees and others who simply needed help.

Squadrito recalled how Freeland would use his plane to transport children to the hospital, or how he responded to a man who was selling off his possessions to pay a family member's medical bills. “He took care of it -- without trumpets and drums. He was an unsung hero, and I liked that.”

It is customary to put the name of benefactors on buildings. It's even customary to put the names of politicians on buildings for spending other people's money. You won't see Freeland's name etched in stone around town, but that's not a testament to his stinginess, Long said, but to his humility.

Being human, I'm sure Freeland had his detractors. But perhaps all of this helps explains why, despite the all-too-successful efforts to vilify honestly achieved success, Long predicts “there won't be a lot of dry eyes Tuesday” at the Tuesday funeral of a man who used his obvious personal prosperity to benefit others in ways that seldom called attention to himself.

The envy-driven critics could not be more wrong: America needs more people like that, not fewer.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.