A Life Remembered | Longtime coach, teacher, admin 'always had your back'

A Life Remembered | Longtime coach, teacher, admin 'always had your back'

URBANA — More than 35 years after his time at Champaign's Jefferson Junior High in the late 1960s, Mike Kiser was back in C-U and ran into his old PE teacher, Richard Freehill.

Describing himself as a "little guy" at 4-feet-10 and 90 pounds in the eighth grade, Kiser said he loved sports but didn't play on Coach Freehill's football or basketball teams, so he never expected Freehill to remember him.

But Dick, or "Free," as he was known by friends and family, walked right up to Kiser and called him by his first and last name.

"That's pretty impressive," said Kiser, who explained that he had a tremendous amount of respect for the Jefferson trio of Freehill, the late Gary Hembrough and former UI football recruiting coordinator Randy Rodgers.

All three were physical-education teachers and coaches at the Champaign junior high school in the '60s and early '70s.

"They looked like they had the best job in the building," Kiser said.

Partly due to their influence, Kiser became a PE teacher himself and is still teaching today in the Tampa Bay area.

"Twenty-nine years, and I still feel like I got the best job in the building," said Kiser, one of many former Jefferson Junior High students saddened by the passing last month of Mr. Freehill, 74, of Urbana, a longtime educator and coach, administrator in multiple area school districts, including Tolono, Prairieview and Pontiac, and 1966 UI graduate who pitched for the Illini baseball team and played forward on the first basketball team to call the Assembly Hall its home court.

"We learned so much about responsibility from them. There were no excuses," Kiser said of the teaching trio.

Mr. Freehill was one of eight kids who grew up in Melvin where their dad was a junior high school principal in the Melvin-Sibley school district. Six of the Freehill kids went into the education field, including Dick, who student taught at Jefferson after graduating from the UI.

"We had a very tight department," said Rodgers, recalling that Jefferson housed seventh- through ninth-graders back then. "The thing I remember most about Dick ... he was a very loyal individual, and he always had your back. If you ever had a problem, he was always the first guy to volunteer to take your shift."

Rodgers said Mr. Freehill had good rapport with his students, too, and was tough when he needed to be, but would also joke around.

Kiser recalled how every once in a while at the end of class, Mr. Freehill would have a football in his hand and tell a student to "go long" for a pass at the 50-yard line, and before the student got there, he and everyone else would slip into the locker room. Kiser said he got more than one student a year with that prank.

"He was just a good guy. He made that class fun," Kiser said.

Rodgers — a football guy who moved on to the college ranks, including the UI on John Mackovic's staff — coached football and basketball at Jefferson with Mr. Freehill, who was a basketball and baseball guy.

But in four years, their football team lost only one game by just six points and 1 yard when their running back got pushed out of bounds just short of the goal line, Rodgers recalls. Although Mr. Freehill was good about giving Rodgers free rein as an assistant, he said their football teams were always in excellent shape due to Mr. Freehill's conditioning.

"And Dick liked to remind me that he was the head coach and was calling all the plays," Rodgers said, adding that despite that teasing, it was the truth. "We had fun. We played hard, and we worked hard, and we always did our job."

Moving on to the college ranks, Rodgers left C-U in 1975, and Mr. Freehill moved on to school administration jobs, although he and his wife, Velda, always remained in the area, raising two children and keeping busy with all sorts of community-service and UI activities as well as sports, like golf and adult recreation leagues.

But he and Rodgers kept in touch.

"Whenever we came back to Champaign, they were the first people we called to get together with," Rodgers said. "We saw each other close to once a year. All the way up until last year."

"Free" was very outgoing, Rodgers said.

"He never met anybody he couldn't talk to," said Rodgers, adding that his personality helped Mr. Freehill as an educator but also in his other job in real estate. "He had a really good memory, too."

When Kiser bumped into Mr. Freehill more than a dozen years ago and found out he was also a PE teacher and basketball coach, he said that's all he talked about with him for the next half-hour.

"And he loved to talk," Kiser said.

Jerry Ramshaw with Ramshaw Real Estate in Champaign played on one of those undefeated football teams at Jefferson, and years later, Mr. Freehill came to work for Ramshaw after retiring from education.

"He never met a stranger," he said of Mr. Freehill. "Just a fantastic guy, a good family man. He knew everybody in town. It was absolutely amazing the people that man knew."

Ramshaw said Mr. Freehill was an easygoing jokester who loved people and had a gift for gab. He worked at Ramshaw for a decade, he said, and carved out a nice second career.

Rodgers said he has a lot of great stories about his good friend, but only one he could share publicly. The day the Freehills got married in Urbana, a handful of Jefferson boys rode their bikes "all the way" from west Champaign to the Urbana church with cans and signs and decorated the newlyweds' car during the ceremony.

"He was hot," Rodgers recalls when Mr. Freehill emerged from the church building to see their ride. "And we knew who it was. ... That speaks to the rapport he had with his students. I'm sure he threatened to kill them."

Ramshaw admits he was one of those young pranksters.

He said Mr. Freehill had intentionally tried to keep his impending nuptials a secret for that very reason, but they discovered the time, date and place anyway.

"We paid dearly for that," Ramshaw said. "He ran us into the ground. And 40 years later, he still remembered that."

Rodgers said everyone is going to miss Mr. Freehill.

"He was a great guy and a great friend, and they don't come any finer," he said.

-