From cousins befriended in childhood to people he met in a bar and bonded with over Bruce Springsteen and beer, Rick Freeman made friends easily and kept them.
He left a lasting impression on people he met just once _ or only via social media _ and a deeper one on those who knew and loved him, who were many.
Freeman, who was the News Media Guild’s mobilizer until he was diagnosed with brain cancer in early August, died Aug. 31 in Cleveland at the age of 40. He had worked as an editor and reporter for The Associated Press in New York City before taking a job with al-Jazeera America, which he helped organize when the workers there voted to join a union in 2015.
Freeman “wanted to do his part to help his co-workers in any way that might make their night a little easier or more enjoyable,” said Noah Trister, a close friend, fellow AP sports writer and frequent companion to Springsteen shows. “I think that’s what helped make him such a loyal and active union member. His career wasn’t just about the work, it was about the people. He felt everyone around him was worth fighting for.”
It was clear from the heartfelt messages of grief on his Facebook page that Freeman’s greatest gift was making other people feel like they mattered.
One man who knew Freeman for only a few hours during a conversation in a New York City bar after Freeman had attended a Springsteen concert described him as “a lovely guy who left a lasting impression and gave me something to remember from my time in that city. A city made beautiful by people like Rick and Jon (a friend).
“I’m so sad for his friends and family, I’ve seen him tagged in tributes all day. If he was that kind to a total stranger I can only imagine how much love he had for them.”
In addition to loving The Boss, Freeman also held an affection for the professional sports teams of his native Cleveland. He twice ran in the New York City marathon.
A cousin shared a photo of the two of them as children with Freeman tousling her hair. “I can only assume you were consoling me because you were blessed with those glorious Jewish curls & I was not,” she wrote. “Cousins are our first playmates as children and then become our best friends. I have zero words for this.”
Many of those sharing memories knew Freeman from his days at the University of Michigan and often from the student newspaper. One said he maintained his friendship with Freeman via Twitter mostly, where “his warmth came through in the staccato of our intermittent conversations … It was both ephemeral and yet meaningful.”
News Media Guild members who didn’t know Freeman when he worked at The Associated Press were just getting to know him as bargaining was beginning for a new contract. One said she had met Freeman just once, when he was New York to discuss negotiations. “He was so kind and wonderful and funny, and this is a huge and devastating loss,” she wrote.
Freeman was supposed to lead mobilizing at a weekend meeting in August in Washington, D.C., but his illness prevented him from attending. Still, he worried about missing the gathering. He texted Guild President Martha Waggoner to find out how things were going, and she instead asked how he was doing.
“I’m pretty OK, considering. Just wish I could be helping more.”
“And that sums up Rick,” Waggoner said.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the National Brain Tumor Society Defeat GBM Research Collaborative.
Aino Wheler, Freeman’s wife, has asked that his friends gather the weekend of Oct. 7 for the Head for the Cure 5K in Cleveland, which will serve as both a raucous celebration of Rick’s life and a fundraiser for research.
In addition to his wife, whom he married in June 2016, Freeman is survived by his parents, Richard and Barbara Freeman, and his sister, Ellen Freeman Kraatz.