Orville L. Freeman Biography

Born in Minneapolis, Orville Freeman received his B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1940. A Marine during World War II, he was wounded, recovered, and became a major. He earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1946, gained admission to the bar in 1947, and worked at a Minneapolis law firm until 1955.

The young lawyer focused as much on politics as the law, forging a close relationship with Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey. Freeman was the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s secretary (1946–1948), managed Humphrey’s successful Senate run (1948), and became DFL party chair (1948–1950). In 1950 he lost the race for state attorney general, and in 1952 he lost the gubernatorial race to incumbent C. Elmer Anderson. Freeman defeated Anderson in 1954 and went on to serve three terms.

The DFL governor established the state’s Fair Employment Practices Commission (1955), Water Resources Board (1955), and Duluth Seaway Port Authority (1955); expanded education funding; and protected Fort Snelling from highway encroachment. His tireless advocacy for farmers consistently earned him rural votes. In 1959 he mobilized the National Guard and declared martial law during a meat-packing strike in Albert Lea. That unpopular decision cost him support from businessmen.

Freeman nominated John F. Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Back home, his rejection of anti-Catholic sentiment helped Kennedy narrowly win Minnesota. In the same close election, Freeman lost his fourth re-election bid.

Kennedy then named the forty-six-year-old to be U.S. secretary of agriculture, a post he held under Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 to 1969.

Returning to private life, Freeman was president of a Washington, D.C.-based computer software design company (1969–1970); president, CEO, and chairman (1970–1984) of a New York City firm that helped companies manage worldwide operations; and senior partner in a Washington, D.C., international law firm (1985–1995). After retiring, he was a visiting scholar at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs (1995–1997).

Freeman died in Minneapolis in 2003 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.