Centenarian Thomas F. Freeman, Ph.D., coach emeritus of the Texas Southern University debate team, in the hallway at the T.F. Freeman Center for Forensic Excellence.

Soul Survivor: Wisdom from a TSU professor who went to work for 70 years—until COVID-19

Thomas F. Freeman, Ph.D., is coach emeritus of the debate team he founded at Texas Southern University

Soul Survivor: Wisdom from a TSU professor who went to work for 70 years—until COVID-19

3 Minute Read

For the first time in 70 years, 100-year-old professor Thomas Freeman cannot go to work at Texas Southern University.

A global pandemic has done what nothing else could: Forced him to stay at home.

Freeman was the ever-present elder of the TSU debate team until COVID-19 closed the university in Houston’s Third Ward as well as most college campuses across the country.

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Centenarian Thomas F. Freeman, Ph.D., coach emeritus of the Texas Southern University debate team, in his office at the T.F. Freeman Center for Forensic Excellence.

Over the years, some of Freeman’s students have earned great renown for their oratorical skills. Early in his career, while teaching a religion class at Morehouse College in Atlanta in the late 1940s, one of his students was a young man named Martin Luther King, Jr. Upon arriving at TSU, Freeman helped a bright, young woman harness the power of her voice. That student was Barbara Jordan, who would become the first Black woman from the South elected to Congress. When preparing for his role as a forensics professor in “The Great Debaters” film, two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington traveled to Houston to consult with Freeman.

Now, the coach emeritus of the debate team he founded in 1949 waits at home “bored” and “wanting to be with the students,” according to Gloria Batiste-Roberts, DPH, Freeman’s former student and successor as director and debate coach at what is now called the T.F. Freeman Center for Forensic Excellence.

At a prolonged time of COVID-19 uncertainty, illness and death, Freeman shares his life experience on overcoming adversity, achieving longevity and devoting time to meaningful endeavors.

Thomas Franklin Freeman, Ph.D., who was born in 1919, turns 101 in June.

Q | Has involvement with students for many decades contributed to your longevity?

A | I’m not so sure that it has contributed to the longevity. I am reasonably sure that it has contributed to my continuous activity. Because I have this to do, I have a reason for existence. Whether that has contributed to longevity, I don’t know, but it definitely is a factor. Senility would have set in had I not continued my activity. Continuous activity means muscles are in use and continue development.

Q | How have the students benefited from your longevity?

A | The older you grow, the greater your chances of making valuable contributions to those who are coming along who could not even imagine what you have experienced. Sharing with them helps them lift themselves out of some situations through which you have already gone.

Q | Most people will succumb, ultimately, to heart disease, accidents or cancer. How have you avoided those to become a centenarian?

A | I don’t think I have avoided those three things. I think I have avoided the consequences of those three things. The human body is subject to attacks and somehow is not destroyed. I have prevailed by the grace and mercy of God.

Q | You don’t drink alcohol or smoke, do you?

A | I am not a smoking man. I’m not a drinking man. I am not a carousing man.

Q | Do you think that accounts, even in part, for your long life?

A | I don’t know. I’m from a family of longevity. My dad lived to be 95. My mother, 87. I have one sister left and she is 82. There were 15 of us and only two left.

Q | What advice do you have for people who want to live a long time?

A | A lot of things that are happening are not under our control. What we need to do as a society is to return to moral values as a basis for good lives. As families, we have to rebuild the moral structure so one has a guide to determine behavior. That starts in the home. Train up a child in the way that they should go.

Q | Do you do any particular exercises?

A | My wife tries to get me to walk and I say, I’ll walk when I’m going somewhere. Somebody gave me a stationary bike, but I don’t use it.

Q | Do you have a special diet?

A | Whatever my wife serves, I eat. She happens to be a good cook and wants to do it. I have a well-balanced meal every time I sit at the table.


Q | Your wife, Mrs. Clarice Freeman, is in her 90s?

A | Yes, 99. [She turns 100 in August.]


Q | How long have you been married?

A | It will be 67 years in 2020. [They wed in 1953.] Three children; four grandchildren.


Q | How has working as a professor and as a minister enhanced your contribution to both education and faith?

A | It’s like the left hand and the right hand. Without one, you couldn’t do as much. One balances the other. I’ve been pastoring for 69 years and I’ve been at TSU for 70 years.

Q | From the perspective of what we now call brain health, how do you keep your mind sharp?

A | The activity that is transpiring now is a part of that. I interact with people. Without interaction, there would be stagnation. If I sat here all day long and looked at the chair, we would get nowhere. With a person sitting in the chair, there is an interaction.

Q | How does it feel to be a centenarian?

A | I can hardly believe that I am 100 years old. [Laughs heartily.]

This conversation is a compilation of two interviews, one from 2019 and another from earlier this year, between Freeman and TMC Pulse Assistant Editor Cindy George. The responses have been edited for clarity and length.

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