Family supports East-West causes
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer
By Beverly Creamer
Tucked away in an unadorned office down a long hallway at the East-West Center, a reclusive couple is making decisions worth millions of dollars to Hawai'i, the Pacific and Asia.
As the son of one of the founders of AIG — the world's largest international insurance company, with origins in China — Houghton "Buck" Freeman and his wife, Doreen, and son, Graeme, manage a philanthropic trust worth $2 billion. For the past 12 years they've had the great pleasure of sprinkling $70 million annually across the United States and around the world, focusing on projects that enhance understanding between East and West.
Most of the project ideas are their own — or a worthy cause they've read about.
"It's our feeling Americans don't understand or appreciate Asia and we feel it's a part of the world that, for heaven's sake, we better understand," says Freeman, who looks the part of a kindly professor with graying hair and a light sweater against the chilly office air conditioning.
"We've had three major wars with Asia. ... I'm not saying it's all America's fault. I'm saying there's obviously a disconnect when the only option seems to be to drop bombs."
The Freemans have put millions into scholarships to bring rising young stars from remote corners of Asia to Hawai'i's East-West Center to study leadership. And trained more than 6,000 teachers from across the United States in Asian cultures so they can add it to their curriculum. And created Asian Studies departments in dozens — maybe hundreds — of American colleges.
They've given to the reconstruction of educational institutions in South Asia after the tsunami. And helped inspire 10 American children's museums to create exhibits on some aspect of Asia — and then send them traveling to 100 more museums, including the one in Hawai'i.
After Doreen Freeman read about the Vietnamese immigrant who did well enough to finance a factory to make artificial limbs for countrymen maimed by land mines, they called to see if they could help.
Now they're devoting millions to have mines cleared from villages in rural Vietnam.
They've met students from far-away Kyrgyzstan, the poorest provinces of the Philippines, exotic Kuala Lumpur, and Hawai'i's public schools.
"We meet them all. They're all great kids," says Freeman of the Hawai'i public school students who have forgone football and soccer to join an after-school program to learn about Asia, sponsored by the Freemans through the Pacific and Asian Affairs Council. Each summer 20 students wing off on an Eastern trip as part of the program.
The foundation's most recent annual report for 2004 — printed with soy ink on recycled paper by a company employing people formerly homeless — details how the Freemans dispensed $65.3 million to 269 projects, including at least 16 in Hawai'i. Of that total about $4.5 million went to Hawai'i schools, museums, students and cultural programs, with many of those grants the first of multi-year commitments.
The East-West Center honored the couple last week by awarding them the Asia Pacific Community Building Award, for "strengthening the bonds of understanding between the peoples and nations of Asia and the U.S." According to a statement from EWC president Charles Morrison, the Freeman Foundation has emerged as "the most significant force in the field of educational exchange between Asia and the United States."
Since 2001, East-West Center projects alone have received $10.4 million from the foundation, and provided opportunities for hundreds of American and Asian students to participate in exchange programs to bridge the cultural divide.
Student Jamal Latiph Hadjiusman of the Philippines, one of those studying at the East-West Center thanks to a Freeman Foundation scholarship plus several others, can attest to that in a personal way. A Muslim, Hadjiusman says he viewed the United States with somewhat hostile eyes before coming here.
"Before, I had a wrong impression," says Hadjiusman. "Because of the animosity, that creates an impression that people are like this or that. But making friends with Americans gave me a good understanding of who they are. We learn good friends have no boundary, no religion. I don't try to judge them because of the foreign policy of the United States. And they don't judge me because of the stigma of al-Qaida."
It's that impact that fulfills the Freemans' goals. Since 1993 when the foundation was launched with a major part of the estate of Freeman's father, more than 1 million students have been involved in exchange programs.
Although the Freemans live in Stowe, Vt., where the foundation is headquartered, they spend winters in Hawai'i, to escape the cold and be close to Asia to keep a hand in their Pacific and Asian philanthropic projects.
Born in the early 1920s in Beijing, Freeman is the son of New Englander Mansfield Freeman, who had gone to China to teach in 1919 only to fall in love with Asia's cultural nuances and make it his home for two decades. By 1923 the elder Freeman had joined forces with entrepreneur C.V. Starr to sell insurance in China and give the dominant British companies a run for their money. By hiring and promoting local Chinese and immigrant White Russians fleeing communism "and writing risks others wouldn't touch," says his son, the two were soon a major force in the insurance world.
Freeman spent his own life selling insurance for his father's company, both in Asia and New York, before turning his retirement in 1993 into a new career of philanthropy. He grew up speaking Mandarin, and during World War II learned Japanese during his Navy service as a translator and then in military intelligence stationed in China.
With their desks positioned around the corner from each other — close enough to overhear conversation but far enough to give them space to work individually — the Freemans have a gently teasing relationship, filled with playful banter.
"What else do we do that I forgot?" he asks, turning to his spunky English wife, who takes the opportunity to mention several of her own favorites.
Their 58-year marriage is the result of "infinite patience," she says. On both their parts.
Reach Beverly Creamer at email@example.com.