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Obituary of Raymond W. Freese: SLU professor chaired math department for 15 years

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2012 - Raymond Freese, who made plans to be a farmer like his father and his grandfather, instead spent more than four decades as a math professor at Saint Louis University, including 15 years as department chair. 

Mr. Freese, who eventually earned four degrees, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at SSM St. Joseph Hospital West in Lake St. Louis.  He was 77 and had lived on his family’s farm in the small Missouri hamlet of Cappeln since he began his teaching career.

Services will be at 2 p.m., Fri., March 16 at St. John's United Church of Christ in Cappeln.

Farming wasn’t exactly the life that his future wife’s father, a Spanish language professor at the University of Michigan, had envisioned for her. 

“I don’t think my parents appreciated Ray’s general agriculture degree,” Celia Freese laughed.  “I think my dad had something to do with him going on to get other degrees.”

Deep intelligence

Raymond William Freese, the second child of Hermann Emil and Lydia Dorothea Giessmann Freese, was born Dec. 17, 1934, in the family’s farmhouse in Cappeln, about 50 miles west of St. Louis.

English was his second language; Plattdeutsch – low German – was his first.  At home, his parents spoke the dialect of their ancestors from the northern European lowlands.

His older sister taught him English so he’d be ready to begin first grade (there was no kindergarten).  He also learned to read, write in long hand and do long division before he headed to a one-room schoolhouse.

“His intelligence ran deep, but he was humble about it,” said Steven Stout, who served on the Emmaus Homes board of directors with Mr. Freese. “He was a gentleman and one of the most intelligent people I’d ever met.”

There’s ample evidence of his abilities.

Reportedly, scholarships paid for all nine years of his education at the University of Missouri-Columbia, including the National Science Foundation Scholarship he won for excelling on a five-hour exam he took the day his eldest son was born.

After graduating with dual bachelor’s degrees in in general agriculture and secondary education in 1961, he completed both a master’s degree and a doctorate in mathematics. 

While pursuing his undergraduate degrees, he taught math to other undergraduates at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. By the time he received his Ph.D., he had been invited to teach at Saint Louis University in the mathematics and computer science department, where he would remain for 46 years, until his retirement in 2007.

“Ray was always a warm and wonderful presence in the math department,” said Steve Harris, Mr. Freese’s colleague for 20 years. “His legacy for the department is the expanding sense of mission he brought it, as well as the continuing tradition of strong collegiality he fostered.

“These speak to his personal vision and his graciousness, aspects we all felt from him.”

Mr. Freese began as an assistant professor of mathematics.  He later served for 15 as department chairman. He published nearly 50 research papers, co-authored a mathematics textbook and mentored 19 students through the completion of their Ph.D.

Shortly after joining Saint Louis University in the ‘60’s, he helped usher in the computer age in the math department.

During his tenure, he received the Emerson Electric Company Excellence in Teaching Award and the College of Arts and Science Outstanding Teaching Award in the Natural Sciences. Nearing retirement, he received Saint Louis University’s Presidential Service Award and in 2009, Eden Theological Seminary awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters. 

Serious leisure

After retirement, Mr. Freese continued to work on publications that focused on characterizations of inner product spaces and on foundations of geometry.  He also continued his community work.

He served in multiple capacities with the Missouri Mid-South Conference of the United Church of Christ and served as president and treasurer of the Boone-Duden Historical Society.  He was a long-time board member of Emmaus Homes, which serves adults with developmental disabilities, where he served terms as treasurer and president.  

“He was always concerned with the best interest of the residents,” Stout said.  “He was steadfast in that.” 

Even his hobby provided a public service.

About the time he began teaching, Mr. Freese became a ham radio operator, eventually attaining an advanced license. He offered his help to MARS, the Military Auxiliary Radio System, where civilian amateur radio operators assist the military, handling messages to and from service men and women and relaying messages during regional disasters. 

Mr. Freese was a 65-year member of St. John’s United Church of Christ in Cappeln, where he taught Sunday school and held many offices, including church school superintendent, president, secretary and treasurer.

Searching for roots

His travels were often a search for heritage – both German and Hispanic – for which he diligently prepared.

His first words had been colloquial German, but Mr. Freese would not learn Hochdeutsch, high (or standard) German, until he entered college.

Both stood him good stead during his summer travels with his wife to Europe and he liberally sprinkled German words throughout the genealogy he meticulously documented online for his family.   

In addition to his wife of 55 years, Celia, Mr. Freese is survived by his three sons, Carl-Hermann (Elaine Jaspering) Freese, of Foristell; William Charles (Kathy Flower) Freese, of Columbia, and Timothy Carl Alverson (Cindy Alverson) Freese, of Columbia; his sister, Mabel Busdieker of Laddonia, Mo., and seven grandchildren.

Visitation will be 4 to 8 p.m. today at Pitman Funeral Home, 1545 Wentzville Parkway, in Wentzville.  Funeral services will be at 2 p.m., Fri., March 16, at St. John's United Church of Christ, 60 St. Johannes, in Cappeln.

Memorials in honor of Mr. Freese may be sent to the Eden Seminary Scholarship Fund, St. John's United Church of Christ, or Emmaus Homes in Marthasville

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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