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Philanthropist nurtured better U.S.-Asia relations

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Houghton "Buck" Freeman, a philanthropist and retired insurance executive whose foundation is a major supporter of the East-West Center, died Dec. 1 in Vermont. He was 89.

"Buck was deeply engaged in all his grant-making," said Charles Morrison, East-West Center president. "He enjoyed interacting with participants, reviewing participant assessment of the programs, and in planning future activities. He was a wonderful, caring person with a deep commitment to strengthening U.S. understanding of Asia."

He was also a strong supporter of environmental programs and a major contributor to higher education.

The Freeman Foundation for several years was the largest single private supporter of the East-West Center. Officials there said its support was critical in helping to rebuild programs after huge federal funding cuts in the mid-1990s.

Beginning with its first award to the East-West Center in 1995, the Freeman Foundation has awarded a total of $13.7 million to support programs in international education and dialogue. These include the Asia-Pacific Leadership Program, the Jefferson Fellowships for journalists, the New Generation Seminar for young leaders, the Asia Studies Development Program for college-level curricula and the AsiaPacificEd programs for K-12 students and educators.

The foundation maintained an office at the East-West Center, which honored Freeman by awarding his family the Asia Pacific Community Building Award for "strengthening the bonds of understanding between the peoples and nations of Asia and the U.S."

Freeman was the son of one of the founders of AIG. He and his wife and son managed a philanthropic trust worth $2 billion, which spent millions of dollars annually on projects designed to enhance better understanding of Asia and the Pacific. The foundation also supported numerous Asian studies programs at the University of Hawaii and donated funds to the Pacific and Asian Affairs Council that supported study tours to Asia for high school students.

In a written statement, Ricardo Trimillos, former chairman of the UH Asian Studies Program, said: "Houghton ‘Buck’ Freeman was passionate about Asia, and he expressed that passion through stewardship." The Freeman Foundation has supported UH undergraduate Asian studies tours in the Mekong River region, retracing King Kalakaua’s trips through Asia as well as trips for mainland teachers who specialize in Asian studies.

The Freemans maintained a winter home at Black Point, where in 2007 they bought a 1-acre vacant lot for $7 million and devoted its use as a bird habitat for wedge-tailed shearwaters, with the Hawaii Audubon Society as designated caretaker.

John Harrison, president of the Hawaii Audubon Society, said, "Buck’s generosity, vision and commitment to community resonates in the tangible experience of grandeur that is the Freeman Seabird Preserve."

Harrison said the "survival of these seabirds is precarious, but through Buck’s foresight and incredible generosity, future life cycles will continue. When breeding pairs of adults return to their Black Point nesting grounds, they will find a habitat that each year becomes a more familiar island of the coastal dry land ecosystem that once was abundant on Oahu and now scarcely exists in its original form."

Buck Freeman was born in Beijing in 1921 and was fluent in Mandarin. He graduated from the Shanghai American School and then attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., but his studies were interrupted by World War II and he left to join the Navy, providing intelligence reports from southern China behind Japanese lines. After the war he earned a degree from Wesleyan and began his insurance career with American International Underwriters Corp.

He served in Shanghai and Tokyo, where he was appointed vice president of AIU Japan in 1952, and promoted to president of AIU Japan in 1956. He remained in Japan for 21 years before moving to New York.

In 1983, Freeman was elected president and chief operating officer of AIG, the American International Group. Upon his retirement in 1993, he remained an honorary director of AIG. When his father died in 1992, Freeman assumed position of chairman of the Freeman Foundation, which he ran with his wife and son since 1992.

Freeman served as a Wesleyan University trustee from 1982 to 1991, and Wesleyan awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1993. During a fund-raising campaign in the 1980s, Freeman and his wife donated $5 million, the largest single gift to that campaign, and jump-started construction of the university’s Bacon Field House and the new pool in the Freeman Athletic Center.

He is survived by his son, Graeme; his wife, Doreen; daughter, Linda Post; five grandchildren; and two stepgrandsons.

A memorial service will take place in early summer in Greensboro, Vt. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to Lamoille Home Health and Hospice, 54 Farr Ave., Morrisville, VT 05661; or the American Red Cross, Hawaii State Chapter, 4155 Diamond Head Road, Honolulu, HI 96816.

 

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