Lester Freeman, a longtime civic leader in Miami, pursued a career that led him to executive positions in the telephone industry and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, then banking and entrepreneurship. All along the way, he was lauded for his sense of public responsibility.
Freeman, who retired to North Carolina more than two decades ago, died Sunday at his home in Cashiers, N.C. He was 85 and had colon cancer, said his wife of 59 years, Mary.
He was a loving and extraordinary husband, father and friend to many, his family said.
“He was just a very fun-loving, popular guy who had a great zest for life,” Mary Freeman said. “He was a wonderful, patient father and a wonderful husband, and we had a magical life.”
Freeman grew up in Tullahoma, Tenn., where his father ran a chain of five and dime stores, his wife said. Before graduating from Vanderbilt University, he spent 18 months in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, serving in the Philippines and Okinawa.
He met his wife at a Christmas Eve party in Fort Lauderdale in 1952. It was love at first sight, she said, and they married in 1954.
Freeman was an executive with Southern Bell Telephone for 16 years, involved in marketing, public relations and community service. In the late-1960s, he was approached by a group of Miami’s business leaders, including the late Alvah Chapman, to plan an overhaul of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, which was in financial difficulties. He was tapped to be the executive vice president, and run the new chamber.
Freeman “was made for that role,” said Armando Codina, chief executive of Codina Partners.
“Lester did a great job of getting the chamber on the right path and fixing the problems,” said Codina, who held leadership roles on the chamber during Freeman’s tenure.
Close friend Sid Levin said that “to know [Freeman] was to love him.”
“Lester was a guy who was raised in the true spirit of Southern hospitality. He understood people with an incredible insight,” said Levin, a former Florida Secretary of Commerce.
“He was in my mind a visionary, and I have known visionaries in my life, and I know the people who get the work done, the doers,” said Levin, who chaired the chamber during Freeman’s years. “I find in my experience very few who are the combination of a visionary and a driver. He was certainly one of those. He brought people to bear and drove it until it was done.”
After 13 years at the chamber, Freeman joined Southeast Bank in 1981. Then, in 1985, he launched Sun Teleservices of Florida.
That year, he was commended in a Miami Herald editorial, saying in part: “In a city and a region where so many seek opportunity without putting back in equal measure, Lester Freeman set a standard of civic service that few others have matched.”
Before retiring to North Carolina in 1991, Freeman received many awards, including the first Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce “Sand in my Shoes” award, and was given the “Humanitarian of the Year” award by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He was also a member of the Orange Bowl Committee, instrumental in the development of the Miami Free Trade Zone and an original member of the Florida High Speed Rail Commission, his family said. He received commendations from Presidents Ford and Reagan.
Freeman continued his community involvement in Cashiers, serving as president of the chamber of commerce. He was also awarded the “Volunteer of the Year Award” by the Historical Society of Cashiers.
In addition to his wife, Freeman is survived by their children, Thomas Lester Freeman, Helen Freeman Schubart and Mattie Freeman; his daughter-in-law, Debbie Freeman and his son-in law Tommy Schubart; five grandchildren and one great-grandson.
Services were held on Wednesday at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, in Cashiers.