Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River) keeps black and white photos of his two grandfathers pinned to the wall in his office at Western Wyoming Community College.
One grandfather was a Kansas farmer, and the other president of the United Mine Workers of America in Rock Springs. “Both of them were devoted to helping people,” Freeman said.
A former high school history teacher, his ancestry is that of a Rock Springs family who used education to get out of the mines. Freeman’s paternal ancestors emigrated from Scotland to Rock Springs in the 1880s to work underground, mining coal for the Union Pacific Railroad. His grandfather, also named John Freeman, developed lung problems from working in the mines, and spent his life in the union fighting for better working conditions.
That, plus 12 years on city council, made his Rock Springs grandfather a controversial figure. As a young man, Freeman always “gritted his teeth” when meeting strangers who knew his grandfather.
“One guy would say, ‘He was the best man to ever shit behind a pair of cowboy boots,’” Freeman said, “and the next would say, ‘He was the most obnoxious son of a bitch you ever met.’ Very seldom did you find anywhere in between.”
Freeman grew up in Rock Springs as the son of an electrician educated on the GI Bill. The family went to California for six years, then moved back to Rock Springs in time for Freeman to graduate high school. He then attended Western Wyoming Community College, and graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in history.
Following graduation, Freeman spent 32 years teaching in Rock Springs, the bulk of that time in an alternative school. Freeman later served six years as a trustee for Western Wyoming Community College “as a way to pay back everything that Western has done for me.” He also served as president of the Wyoming Association of Community College Trustees.
“Education has been my focus,” Freeman said.
In 2010 he ran for the legislature in order to have a larger influence on education policy. “I saw as a teacher we were testing too much,” Freeman said. “I saw the legislature micromanaging more than what they should, and I just wanted to kind of be in there to say, ‘this is a voice from the trenches,’ basically.”
Freeman supplements his work as a lawmaker with his part-time job as a high school transitions coordinator at Western Wyoming. “I tell people I have two part-time full-time jobs, and that’s not much of an exaggeration.”
Despite working in Rock Springs, Freeman has lived in Green River for decades. He “cut his political chops” by working together with a group to put in a greenbelt pathway in Green River. He lived there rather than in Rock Springs to have a little independence from his extended family.
“People from Rock Springs think Green River is 15 miles on the other side of Salt Lake,” Freeman joked. “They go to Salt Lake in a heartbeat, but you have drag them kicking and screaming to Green River.”
Freeman serves on the House Education Committee and the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife, and Cultural Resources Committee. He’s also a member of the Management Council, the Select Natural Resource Funding Committee, and the Select Committee on the Wyoming Value Added Energy and Industrial Plan.
Freeman’s work as a lawmaker has taken him to China, and given him a chance to learn about carbon sequestration and electrical generation at the Jim Bridger power plant.
“The one thing about the legislature is I love to learn, and every time I turn around I try to learn something new,” he said. He’s heard a lot from constituents recently about school resource officers, Game and Fish license fees, shed antler hunting, and recalibration of K-12 education funding.
While he has no “pat answers” for how to improve education, he favors local control, while believing the state should still ensure schools are performing.
“We have to learn how to trust the local districts and teachers,” Freeman said. As for standardized testing, he believes “less is best.”
That fits with his broader philosophy about government: “I don’t believe in government giveaways — but the flip side of that is government can help, when it doesn’t micromanage.”