The Mentor Behind Our Leaders

Posted by Judy Anne Cavey on Feb 16, 2012 in , , | No Comments

As a professor, he taught Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barbara Jordan.

I’m always on the lookout for inspiring stories about influential people, especially if there’s a special occasion to celebrate them. While on the treadmill at the gym, I thumbed through an AARP magazine (December/January), someone had left behind. In it I found an article written by Teresa Wiltz, about a 92 year old professor who has been teaching for (are you ready?) 69 years!

It isn’t primarily the length of time he’s been a teacher that caught my attention–that in itself is amazing–but it’s also about the famous American leaders who have passed through his classrooms. Truly, his story is one I feel honored to tell in this month when we celebrate Black History.

About the Man

Thomas F. Freeman, Ph.D., is a debate-team coach and philosophy professor who works 12 hour days. Professor Freeman doesn’t take vacations and has never taken a sick day in the 63 years he’s taught at Texas Southern University in Houston and lectured at Morehouse College.

Professor Freeman received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in divinity–which explains why he preaches at Mt. Horem Baptist Church in Houston on weekends. When asked when he’ll retire, he responds, “As long as God gives me strength and good health and there is a need for my services, I will be available.”

Well-traveled, from South Africa to Hungary with his impressive TSU debate team, which has won first place at the International Forensics Association Tournament three times in the past 10 years. That’s no small feat, they competed against 20 schools. Professor Freeman states, “We’ve never gone to a tournament and not gone all the way to the finals–for 40 years.” Yet for this educator extraordinaire, winning is not everything. His motto is, “You don’t always have to win, but you do have to do your best.” Spoken like a master mentor.

His Famous Students

While lecturing at Morehouse College, Professor Freeman had in one of his classes a young man who was destined to become a leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. Another student, the late Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan, was also a student of Dr. Freeman’s. One can only speculate the direct impact Dr. Freeman had on our American history through these two former students.

And it should come as no surprise that Hollywood came calling one day. Professor Freeman trained the cast of the 2007 film, The Great Debate, starring Denzel Washington.

Other Notable Accomplishments

Dr. Freeman has been married to his wife, Clarice, for 57 years. He grew up in a segregated Virginia and in the 1950′s (when black students were barred from intercollegiate debate championships), he created a contest for historically black colleges. 

Presently, he’s hard at work preparing students for the next international debates in Rome this coming March.

Personal Thoughts

It wasn’t the treadmill which exhausted me the day I read about Professor Freeman. Quite simply, it was reading about this man’s unwavering energy, incredible accomplishments, and how he influenced students over nearly seven decades–and continues to influence! 

I wonder what future American leader is seated in his class this moment?


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