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[Freeman] Donald Freeman

Donald Freeman

“Don” … Shown here in his Mount Hermon high school graduation photo. Way back in 8th grade Don left us behind for greener pastures at private school.

[What follows is an email thread to an old junior high classmate, Donny (Ohanion) Freeman. Newsy, enjoyable reminiscences: ]

Email—January 18, 2009

Hi, Cliff. You probably don’t remember me (although I remember you), but I attended the Westport schools through Grade 8, when I went off to prep school (Mount Hermon, as it then was). So, although I graduated in 1955, I didn’t graduate from Staples.

I stumbled onto the Staples55 site while Googling old friends (the geezer’s pastime, I’m convinced), and really think it’s terrific. It isn’t clear that the site is still active, but if it is I wonder if you could list my e-mail address (in e-signature below) even though there’s no graduation picture to go with it.

I was John Ohanian’s stepson, and carried his name as Donald Ohanian through 6th grade during my Bedford El years; when I went to BJHS I changed it back to my birth name, Donald Freeman.

The site is fascinating. There’s a shot of my third grade class somewhere in there and I could identify three-quarters of the faces! Amazing the tricks that memory plays.

Anyway, I hope this finds you well; I’ve bookmarked the site and look forward to seeing more of it.

Best regards – Don Freeman
d.freeman4@verizon.net (click to launch email program)

Email—January 19, 2009

Hi, Cliff. Thanks for getting back. Jeez, nobody’s called me “Donny” for more than 50 years…. Memories, memories. But I had completely forgotten that you were a fellow fiddle player, and now I remember those times better. Connie Weber played with us, too, as you may recall. I kept playing through prep school, but stopped playing fiddle when I went off to college.

John Ohanian died in 2002 — 92, a good age. He took early retirement very abruptly in Westport in 1972 when a new superintendent abolished the systemwide directorships (including at least, as I remember, Vivian Testa in Art, as well as John in music), and, after (to everyone’s surprise) recovering from a heart attack that nearly killed him a couple of years later, moved to Sarasota, FL, where he lived out his days. John … did a hell of a job with that music program, even if living with him was absolutely impossible (I was sent to Mount Hermon to get us out of each other’s hair).

Another Westporter who had the same experience with John that you did was Pete Chapman, who went on to play trumpet in the Boston Symphony for 30-odd years (as far as I know he’s still playing with them). So, of course, did my half-brother David Ohanian, who later went on to play French horn with the Canadian Brass. My mother, Phyllis, is still kicking at 95. She’s in assisted living in Newton, near David and his family, but still has all her marbles.

Alas, I don’t have any pix of that era (though my mother may; I’ll check with her next time I go in to see her). But, to pick out the high (or low, depending on your point of view) points of my life since Bedford Junior High, here goes:

After graduating from Mount Hermon School in western Massachusetts (a part of the world to which, by a long and circuitous path, I have returned), I went to Middlebury College.

I then started graduate work in English language and literature at Brown, got an M.A. there, and did my Ph.D. in English at the University of Connecticut.

I married; we had two kids and then got divorced.

I taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had a post-doctoral fellowship in linguistics at MIT, and founded the department of linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I met my second and still current (after 38 years) wife, Margaret, an Englishwoman and Emily Dickinson scholar.

I taught English at Temple for five years, and then with college looming for my kids, got a real job with a real salary, running the in-house professional development program at a Wall Street law firm and, later, for an international law firm, during which time I was based in London and traveled all over the world for them. I finished my professorial career at the University of Southern California in LA.

When Margaret and I retired we bought and restored a 1790 Federal house on 57 acres of meadow and forest in the village of Heath, Massachusetts, north of the Deerfield River on the Vermont line about 110 miles west of Boston. I’ve dipped a toe into town politics and have an active life as an amateur choral singer (tenors can always get work).

My daughter Elizabeth is an English professor at UC Davis, following more or less in the footsteps of her old man (though she would not be altogether pleased to learn of this characterization).

My son Roger is a partner in a private equity firm in New York and lives in New Canaan, not far from our old stomping grounds. He was a bit taken aback to learn that in our time, Route 123, which runs near his house, was known to Westport teens as “Beercan Boulevard” because it was the shortest route to New York State and 18-year-old boozing! Two granddaughters, aged 3 and 5. Much inner peace.

Probably the strongest memory I have of my education in the Westport schools is of Marion Sorisi (Noel Castiglia’s aunt), who taught English at BJHS and was my homeroom teacher. She died very young, in her late 40s, I think, of ovarian cancer after I had gone away. She was an incredible teacher and a warm, wonderful woman; I owe everything I accomplished in my career to her — and alas, because she died so young, never had the chance to tell her.

So I guess that’s about it, Cliff. Please feel free to share as little or as much of this as you like, as well as my contact information, with readers on the site. You really did a wonderful job with that. Don’t worry that it’s so lightly patronized—that is the fate of such efforts, in my experience.

It was alarming — but, if you consider the calendar, not surprising, I suppose—to see how many of our classmates had passed on, many of whom I was close to—Pam Benson (whom I dated in college, and who died at 48), Billy Tuach, Sandy Frey, Muriel Burke, Diane Bertasi, Franny Booth, Kit Carson, Connie Weber. These were people that, in retrospect, seemed highly likely to make a mark on the world, and the ones whose subsequent lives I know anything about certainly did.

Thanks again for getting back, Cliff. I’m sorry for the longwindedness of this, but seeing the site and then hearing from you really released the flood of recall. You’re right: childhood memories really do last forever.

Best – Don

Email—January 20, 2009

Hi, Cliff. Wow, what a full reply stuffed with news about my former schoolmates. I hardly know where to begin.

First off, sure, feel free to share any or all of my earlier e-mail on the website. I’m going in to see Mom late this week or early next, and will ask her about old pix with a view to scanning them and getting them to you as fast as I can. And don’t worry about “Donny”; I honestly had forgotten that that was my moniker until I went away to school in 1951.

I suppose the most startling portion of your reply was your news about all the deaths. I was shocked to learn of Franny Booth’s suicide—how old was she at her death? She was a real babe, at least in junior high school. I now recall dimly the news of John Cummings’s death—if I remember rightly it was while he was still in school. Oh yeah: if you get a chance, Google “Ronald Grecula.” He was a terrorist, or was at least convicted of a Federal crime involving the sale of bombs. Imagine going to Federal prison at age 70!

Marion Sorisi went by that name; her maiden name was Marion Castiglia. Her husband Charlie fought in Italy in WWII and was, I think, made military governor of Naples for a short while because he spoke Italian. He died a lingering and painful death after the war of esophageal cancer; Marion followed him not long after. Just an amazing lady. I’m glad you passed on that part of my message to Noel; it would be good to hear from him if he cares to get in touch.

I did see the clipping about Larry Roberts on your site, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that he had been one of the inventors of the Internet. Larry was a very smart guy, with very smart and wonderful parents. We used to play together at his house or mine when we were kids. And I do remember Duchess Norris (though I never knew her as “Duchie”). You could never forget a name like that! I know how it is about first loves. I met up with mine again at my Mount Hermon/Northfield 50th reunion (Mount Hermon was part of the Northfield Schools, which also included Northfield, a girls’ school that has gone under, alas). She went to Radcliffe (which was to Harvard as Pembroke was to Brown in my time and yours, too), then to med school and became quite a prominent pathologist. Wouldn’t you know it: we had absolutely nothing to say to one another after 50 years!

Your memory of my mom is mostly accurate. She was dark-haired and very pretty in her time (still is, for someone of her advanced years), though not particularly dark-complected. She used to accompany for John at various of his events, and that may have been where you met or saw her.

Nice to hear about your wife and kids. I guess our generation’s kids have a lot more varied lives than we did. If your travels bring you out this way, please stop by for tea (an institution in this house, 4 p.m. sharp every day, a fringe benefit of marrying a Brit) or a meal—we’d love to see you (contact details below). We’re four miles north of Route 2 about 15 miles west of Greenfield. I don’t go to Westport much any more, now that I have no reason to, but the times I have been there since we moved back East I’ve felt like Rip Van Winkle. There’s a lot of really conspicuous money there now, and I just don’t feel very comfortable.

So again, great to hear from you, Cliff. My Westport schoolmates are a side of my life that I just hadn’t reopened since I left town all those years ago, and it’s good to get it back, if a bit vicariously (and belatedly).

Best regards – Don

Email—January 21, 2009

Hi, Cliff. No, I don’t remember anything specific about Duchie, but when I read the name on your site a face popped into my mind, and when I saw the picture of the two of you going off to the prom the face rang a bell.

Interesting story about you and Ron Grecula and the staple [as in staple gun]-shooting incident. He never made much impression on me one way or the other, but we had only two years of acquaintance at BJHS, inasmuch as I went to Bedford El. I think we were in the same homeroom. I’d be most grateful if you could reprint the 25th reunion booklet and send me a copy, and would of course reimburse you for your expenses in so doing.

One of the interesting developments in Westport has been the apparent dissolution of the tight Italian-American community in Saugatuck. There used to be lots of interesting places like Nistico’s restaurant and a couple of Italian groceries that my mom used to patronize when we lived there. Now Saugatuck (the name has even disappeared from the train station) is yuppie heaven just like all the rest of Westport. Another illustration of the notion that change isn’t always progress.

So what did you do during your working life? It’s always interesting to me to learn what friends from way back wound up doing with their lives.

Assuming you are in Grantham, hope you’re surviving the cold. We are.

Best – Don

Email—February 1, 2009

Hi, Cliff. Sorry to be so late in getting back to you on this; e-mail does carry the risk that if you don’t answer a message immediately, it sinks down to the bottom of your inbox, there to be discovered by your executors….

I guess I knew Duchie before she got curvy… >8-) … which shows you how long ago it was.

I eagerly await the Reunion Rag. I just got one from my college (Middlebury) for my 50th there this June. Maybe that reunion will resemble my Mount Hermon reunion, at which it appeared that about a third of my classmates were more or less the same as they were at 18, a third had really bloomed, and a third had never realized their potential. That’s what seems to be implied in the book of reunion autobiographies that my college classmates sent to me.

It took me a long time to find the “focus” that you see in my career. I was a mediocre student in prep school and for my first two years in college, but then I caught fire. And in my career itself I did leave the academic trade for six years to run the in-house professional development programs of a couple of big law firms. I needed to make a real salary to educate my kids, but it was also a result of midlife crisis, I now think, looking back. I don’t do academic stuff at all any more — I sing and participate in town politics.

I don’t remember Mario’s Restaurant. Next time I’m near Westport I think I’ll cruise the streets of Saugatuck and see if I can summon up remembrance of things past. The Clam Box, where I toiled summers during my college years, is no more, although there’s still a restaurant on that site.

In thinking back over our correspondence and what I found on your website, I’m struck by a memory that may or may not be accurate. I was dismayed at the number of early deaths, suicides, and… I remember my fellow BJHS students as a relatively fast crowd, for that era at least. It was pre-drugs, but even in junior high there was a lot of smoking and drinking, a lot of sex, fueled by a lot of money. I wonder if that’s part of the reason why our class would appear, at least, to exceed the actuarially predicted death rate at this phase in our lives. Maybe it was the sharp contrast with the very puritanical prep school environment I found myself in after 8th grade. Or maybe I’m just full of rubbish.

Anyway, thanks for the copy of your message to Noel; he hasn’t been in touch, but I’m hoping he will be. Take care.

Best – Don

Email to Noel—February 2, 2009

Hi, Noel. Great to hear from you.

Maybe Cliff didn’t forward to you what I wrote to him about your Aunt Marion. She was the single greatest intellectual influence on my life—I had a career as a university professor of English, and it all started with her (I’m pretty sure it was English that she taught me, at any rate, although she may have done social studies too; her most important influence, though, was as a homeroom teacher, mentor, counselor, savior from myself).

The first part of that career was, funnily enough, at UCSB, where Carla is now. Sooner or later, I’ve found over the years, everything connects. I never did finish, before I retired, the book on Shakespeare that I wanted to dedicate to Mrs. Sorisi’s memory (she will always be Mrs. Sorisi to me). I remember both Carla and Marcia fondly and well.

You are now living in Annapolis, MD, I’m told. If you’re ever up this way, please call and come for a meal or overnight if it suits (we renovated a cavernous 1790 Federal house on 57 acres in the middle of nowhere, halfway between Greenfield and Williamstown on the Vermont border).

What did you do in your working life? And any other news you’d care to share.

Best – Don Freeman

Email—February 4, 2009

Hi, Cliff.

Jeez, I really was long-winded in that reply, wasn’t I? Oh well.

All of this has led to a correspondence with Noel Castiglia and with his cousin Carla Whitacre, Marion Sorisi’s daughter, who—in a further illustration of the principle that sooner or later everything connects—is a research administrator at UC Santa Barbara, where I taught English in my first job out of graduate school. Noel and I were good friends in elementary and junior high school; last time I saw Carla she was about two years old!

Take care of yourself, and all the best.


Email—February 4, 2009

Hi again, Cliff,

Did I really look like that at, I’m gonna guess, age eight? What a dweeb. I’ve attached a current picture that you can use or not use, as you wish.

Zero degrees today up here in God’s country! But at least the furnace is working.

Talk soon, and all the best.


Email—February 5, 2009

Hi, Cliff. Here’s a yearbook photo of me, although it’s the Mount Hermon yearbook, not the Staples one, obviously. It’s a scan (I was editor of my Mount Hermon 50th reunion yearbook), and hence rather messy, but it’s all I have. I’ve also attached a picture of Margaret and me, and a picture of our house.

I of course realized how to use the link to my e-mail address right after I wrote you. Dumb me. And your editing was fine, although I may have confused the issue when I said that Pete Chapman’s experience with John Ohanian was similar to yours. As far as I know, at least, John didn’t boink Pete with his instrument, but he was, by Pete’s account (of many years ago), a demanding and exacting teacher.

My exchange with you has led to an exchange with Noel Castiglia, and from there to an exchange with his two cousins, Marion Sorisi’s daughters Marcia and Carla. So that Google search of a week or so ago really has reconnected me with some important parts of my life history. Thanks to you for that, Cliff; ya done good.

Best – Don

[Note: Click any image below to enlarge.]

Don and Margaret Freeman

Freeman House

[P.S. If anyone wants to know what a couple of “fellow fiddlers” do when they quit fiddling, here’s the answer: they yak it up like a couple of giggly high school girls coming out of the locker room…:O) I’m sure Don would be delighted to hear from some of his old Westport pals should you care to contact him.]