Lake Wales Artist Tom Freeman by Donna Kelly

Lake Wales Artist Tom Freeman
By Donna Kelly

For Tom Freeman, it’s all about the art – the art of living.

His life is a palate of vivid experience, of gentle brush strokes and perfect golf swing, of winsome singing and passion for teaching. It’s brilliant with love – of a good woman, faithful friends and students, and a son lost way too soon.

And now, at 87, it is about the art of survival, the art of reassessing after you’ve been diagnosed with cancer.

He calls them crossroads, the junctures of life when being at a certain place, for a specific time, with the right people made all the difference in his path and where it led.

These crossroads – not the cancer – define the man and his life.

The Storyteller

A storyteller at heart, Freeman’s home studio in Lake Wales is filled with as many history books and old family photos as canvases and paint brushes. He has a story to share for each painting and every photo.

Black and white photos of his boyhood days in Cordoba, Alabama, and Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, elicit stories of his physician father who was killed in a wagon accident while lending a helping hand to someone in need. Freeman was just 7 at the time.

A sense of responsibility came early. At 10 years old, he was sent to his grandparents’ farm to take over his grandfather’s dairy route while his minister grandfather was on the preaching circuit. Two years later, he took responsibility for baling cotton and planting corn.

As a teenager, he earned money for Christmas presents and developed a life-long love of golf while working as a caddie for a country club.

His passion for Florida history and wildlife developed when his family moved to Frostproof during his late teenage years. He shares this passion by spinning yarns about the history of scenes he paints – of the people, foliage, and fauna.

This, says retired school teacher and award-winning artist Diane Lescard, is one of Freeman’s most endearing qualities.

“He’s making an artistic statement about our Florida environment that he wants to last forever. He wants people to know and love this environment the way he does,” she says. “He is a natural recorder. That is how he draws you in – with his stories of Central Florida, from his childhood to now. He will tell you a story about every one of his paintings.”

Early Crossroads

“I never started out to be an artist,” Freeman says, despite the fact that a painting of two birds he painted as a first grader in 1931 was still hanging in Cordoba Elementary School 40 years later.

He received another hint as a young sailor – a radar technician – aboard ship in the Pacific as he sketched a nearby sister vessel during a typhoon.

When an officer walked by and saw the piece, he was surprised by Freeman’s talent. Freeman later gave it to him. Long after leaving the Navy, Freeman discovered the drawing had been sent to the Bureau of Naval Personnel and memorialized in history. He considers this his crowning achievement as an artist.

No, he didn’t choose the life of an artist. He wanted to study electrical engineering at the University of Florida.

But when he returned from the war, the University of Florida was filled to capacity with other veterans rebuilding their lives. Instead, Freeman entered Florida State University and was in the first class of men to matriculate in the former women-only school.

“It was a crossroad between success and failure,” says Freeman, who played on the FSU’s first golf team.

Although acute appendicitis took him away from FSU before he graduated, there he met two people who would change the course of his life: Art professor William Boughton, who taught him to paint murals, and Priscilla McCaskill, now Freeman, the woman who has shared his life for more than 63 years.

Because FSU didn’t offer electrical engineering at the time, he opted to study commercial art and advertising. Boughton, who had studied murals at Berkley, became Freeman’s mentor.

“That’s how I knew how to paint murals in Lake Wales and Lake Placid,” Freeman says. “I took what was available to me. It wasn’t what I had planned to do but something was pushing me. It became a fixation and something I just had to do.”

His landscape paintings and portraits are found in private collections, museums, board rooms, and public buildings throughout the south.

Life Lessons 

Freeman has taught thousands to paint – from high school students to retirees.

When Tom and his bride returned to Polk County, she became a school teacher and he owned a couple of businesses in Lake Wales. Later he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in fine art and education at Florida Southern College and embarked on a career in education. He spent nearly 20 years at Lake Wales High School as an art instructor, the dean of students, and 14 years as principal.

Along the way he earned a masters degree in art education and administration from Florida Atlantic University.

“My association with students in the school and my ability to take care of the school grounds and staff just came naturally to me,” he says. “It was just so precious to me, so satisfying. I felt so grateful to come back from the war and I wanted to give something back.”

He’s quietly provided golf lessons, painting classes, and job leads to students wishing to better themselves, paying forward kindness given to him over the years. His paintings have been donated to a wide range of non-profit organizations designed to help people. He’s read poetry to school children and given historical tours to downtown visitors.

Since retiring from Lake Wales High School in 1989, he’s taught adult painting classes through several arts organizations. Many have gone on to become art educators or prize winning artists.

David Price, a sculptor and president of Bok Tower Gardens, says students of all ages have learned about art, life, and the environment from Freeman.

“He has encouraged students to be more observant of nature, teaching the principles of art and elements of design, as well as the very soul of nature itself,” Price says.

Freeman has been recognized by Polk Arts Alliance and the Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce for his contributions to art programs.

On Staying Young

Life hasn’t always been easy. He lost his father while still a young child. He watched two ships in his squadron go down during the war. And Freeman and his wife were separated geographically early in their relationship while she interned in Panama City and he recuperated from his appendectomy in Jacksonville.

The highlights of his life are marrying Priscilla in 1950 and the birth of their son, Gary, three years later.

“I had the pick of the litter when I married Pris 63 years ago,” he says of his wife, a down-to-earth woman with a quick sense of humor and amused pride in her husband’s local celebrity status.

The birth of the Freemans’ son, Gary Freeman, brought both joy and challenges. A small, frail baby, Gary stayed in the hospital for several weeks after he was born. He later required surgery for an eye condition.

Gary Freeman was 20-years-old when he was killed in a car accident in 1973. The Freemans memorialized their son by establishing a scholarship in his name at Polk State College.

How does a marriage survive the ups and downs of life for more than six decades?

“We were determined to make the best out of tough times,” Freeman says. “We kept our commitment to each other. It was a tough life, but we were tough people.”

His life philosophy was a gift from his grandmother. “My grandmother taught me that if you can’t do something about it, then don’t worry about it,” Freeman says.

His mother and grandmother instilled in him a determination to not allow day-to-day occurrences to negatively affect him. “They were determined to get the best out of every day, to contribute something to somebody, to help others,” he says.

“It’s been a tragic life but yet a beautiful life,” Freeman says.

And he’s not done yet.

While frequently taking on commissioned paintings, Freeman is still active in his community. He serves as president of his homeowners association, teaches adult painting classes, sings and records music, and regularly hits the golf course.

“You always have to have something to do that you feel is necessary,” he says.

He continues to work towards completing another career milestone: A book of 67 paintings featuring natural Florida landscapes, one for each county. He’s finished 23 paintings since taking on the project more than two years ago. His goal is to have it done by the end of 2014.

“I was born in Tennessee but I love Florida,” he says. “I love this country and the terrain – ponds, lakes, streams, fishing.”

He loves life and he loves people.

“My life has been fantastic,” Freeman says.