Whidbey grieves the loss of its “Conductor of Fun”

— Created June 29, 2022 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

No one could make you laugh like Jim Freeman, Whidbey Island’s self-described “Conductor of Fun” and our colleague here at Whidbey Weekly.

Jim passed away June 19, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts and, we are sure, in the hearts of his faithful readers and the many, many friends he acquired on and off Whidbey during his far-too-short life. He was 74 chronologically, although he was still very much a kid at heart.

His “joie de vivre” and humorous observations made him the life of the party, whether it was simply enjoying a meal with friends or emceeing an event. He was quick with a comeback and a natural comedian. He was smart enough to become a lawyer, and smarter still to recognize that career path wasn’t for him. But more than anything, he was kind. He cared about people.

“In a world full of busy people, Jim took the time to sit and chat,” said Laura Tarasoff, a longtime friend.

Tarasoff described getting to know Jim at south Whidbey poetry slams. One evening, when her new car was hit in the parking lot, Jim came to the rescue.

“Jim graciously stayed there with me, making sure my lights all worked and it was safe to drive,” she said. “All the way home to Coupeville I vented my emotions about what had happened but kept coming back to how kind and patient Jim was with the situation. Later we would joke about my first poetry slam being taken too literally.

“When I got home, I sent him an email to let him know I had arrived safely. I included a cheeky poem about the event,” Tarasoff continued. “Years later, Jim would send me a letter with the obituary of the gentleman that had hit me and a copy of the poem he had printed out and saved. Our friendship was forged in poetry and understanding that people need more grace than we often want to give them, but when we get past our surface emotions, we can be kind.”

“Jim Freeman – friend, poet, comedian, community organizer, our conductor of fun…I first met Jim in 2000, had just moved here with my two young children and they were part of an all school talent show that used to be held at the high school,” said Deana Duncan, executive artistic director at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. “Both my boys were scared and neither one of them wanted to perform their ‘skits,’ but Jim knew how to hold space for youth and for voices that didn’t want to be heard, and he asked them if they would share their stories. We all still remember that day because it was our introduction to how much this community loved the arts and how one person, this time Jim Freeman, could make a difference.

“Jim performed many times at and for Whidbey Island Center for the Arts and no matter where I ran into him, he always asked how we were doing and wished us well,” Duncan continued. “We will miss Jim; his talent, his smile, his joy – another ‘star’ has left our presence but the light he gave is still here.”

“He had an exceptional mind and insight into people,” said Rufus Rose, another longtime friend and kindred spirit. “He had a great wit and willingness to expose his way of thinking and laugh at life. He accepted that there were always questions, that there were always ‘givens.’ Jim’s mind wanted to investigate the givens. He pursued them. He would look for the facts but recognized the facts don’t always tell the whole story. I admired Jim a lot.”

Jim spent years entertaining people as the master of ceremonies at countless nonprofit events on Whidbey Island. He served as the emcee for Goosefoot’s Mutt Strut for 10 years, from 2007 until the event ended in 2017.

“Jim really cared about the causes and events he emceed because he was a member of our community,” said Marian Myszkowski, director of programs at Goosefoot. “At the Mutt Strut, he especially enjoyed interviewing the younger contestants. And he wasn’t beneath getting down to dog level to have a few words with them! He would contact me to be sure he had the following year’s Mutt Strut on his calendar so he didn’t book another job in its place. His own enjoyment of the Mutt Strut meant a lot to us!

“Jim had a way of making people feel special and appreciated,” she continued. “And that sense of humor, oh my! That’s what I’ll miss most about him.”

Longtime friend, Frank Rose, chair of the Langley Arts Fund, said he would often enjoy time with Jim over breakfast at the Freeland Café. Frank, an artist who specializes in portraiture, sculpted a portrait of Jim a few years ago.

“He had an interesting face, he was a friend,” Rose said about why he wanted to use Jim as a subject, creating a fired clay portrait with a finishing patina that makes it look like bronze.

“The piece has been on a shelf for four or five years. I’d like to find a home for it so Jim’s legacy can be remembered.”

Rose said he’d be happy to entertain offers for the piece and donate the money to the Langley Arts Fund.

“I think Jim would like that,” he said.

We think Jim would love that – he loved this community, its people. He loved sharing tidbits in his weekly column – whether they actually happened was another story.

“Jim had the best stories – some real and some he just made up,” said Eric Marshall, publisher of Whidbey Weekly. “I remember asking him one time about an exchange with a reader he wrote about. Turns out, he made the whole thing up. He also had great jokes, although not all of them were fit for publishing.”

It is Jim’s laughter Marshall said he will miss the most.

“It was so genuine and had a way of lifting your spirits,” he said. “We were sitting together at a Freeland Chamber luncheon before COVID. The room was relatively quiet as we sat and listened to the presenter. Something the presenter said struck Jim as funny and he let out with a loud ‘HA!’ For a second you could tell he was slightly embarrassed by his outburst, then suddenly the whole room erupted in laughter as a result of Jim’s amusement. He had the ability to brighten up any room or situation.”

“Jim was the class clown that was smarter than most people in the room, but didn’t need to prove it,” Tarasoff said. “He understood that more people needed a good laugh than needed facts. If laughter is the best medicine, Jim was the village medicine man. When you saw the smile creep onto Jim’s face, you knew he had caught something everyone else missed. He struggled only in stifling his laughter. He was a loud man of quiet faith, he lived the example of grace and kindness. He said judgement was not his gig, there was too much of that in the world.

“Whidbey lost a big personality with a small-town spirit,” she continued. “He was someone who saw the little things and celebrated them. Jim reminded us to pat each other on the back and laugh at ourselves. The only thing quicker than his wit was his graciousness.”

Those of us at Whidbey Weekly who worked with him looked forward to the emails and notes he would send to us with some funny anecdote or observation. It was, quite simply, a joy.

“He was always upbeat. I don’t think he was ever in a bad mood. He made coming to work Mondays more fun. I would look forward to reading his column as I was placing it on the page,” shared TJ Pierzchala, Whidbey Weekly production manager. “I will miss our weekly chats back and forth via email. When he would send his column, he would usually tell a little story about something he’d done over the weekend or tell about a strange fact he had learned. When I would send his proof to him, I would reply with a story of my own weekend adventures. Over the last 10 years or so, we really learned a lot about each other. I will forever cherish the lunches we shared, the stories we shared, and the friendship we had.”

“Sometimes he’d send me funny things in snail mail too, and Seahawks related stuff because he knew we were fans,” said Whidbey Weekly graphic artist Teresa Besaw. “TJ and I would meet him for lunch occasionally. Our lunches were such a treat – being in his presence and listening to his stories. We just laughed and laughed. I will miss him and those lunch dates together.”

In the words of Jim’s beloved television hero, Roy Rogers, “Happy Trails,” our friend.

“The island has lost a true original,” said Marshall. “I don’t know any other person who is as respected, admired and beloved as Jim. He truly was one-of-kind.”