It was a late night Friday for Columbus State University custodian Gary Freeman. As the lead janitor in the Lumpkin Center, he led the team that cleaned up after the first of three graduation ceremonies.
Freeman, 58, got off work well after midnight Saturday morning.
Less than 12 hours later he was back at the Lumpkin Center, wearing a cap, gown and huge smile for the Colleges of Arts and Business graduation, ready to pick up the Bachelor of Business Administration degree that he earned as a part-time student over nine years of attending classes.
Freeman worked his regular night-time shift on Friday.
“After everybody left, we cleaned up the stands, we cleaned up the floor and got all the trash out,” he said. “At 1 in the morning when we got off, I was like, ‘Well, this is the big day.’ At that point I was just counting down the hours.”
Freeman’s boss, Senior Director of University Support Services Steve Morse, was outside the Lumpkin Center helping direct traffic when Freeman arrived for graduation.
“He had the biggest smile I have ever seen,” Morse said.
Part of the reason for the smile was Freeman took the long road to a college degree, earning it 40 years after he graduated from Spencer High School in 1977, the last class to attend the school at its Shepard Drive location.
Freeman started working at the Farmer’s Market when he was 12 years old, shelling peas and butter beans. He continued to work for a local produce company when he graduated from Spencer High School in 1977 and college wasn’t an option for economic reasons.
“My dad left home when I was 12 and I started working at that time to help mama keep the bills paid,” Freeman said. “... I wanted to go to college but because I had to help my mama keep the bills paid and if I hadn’t been working, the little bit she was getting from dad would not have been enough to make it.”
Catherine Freeman died in 1996, but her son knows she would have been proud on Saturday.
“I tell you, she would have been right there cheering me on,” he said.
Columbus State University President Chris Markwood pointed to Freeman’s accomplishment with great pride.
“It is great to be a part of a university that serves all different kinds of students,” Markwood said. “This is another example of the transformative power of higher education.”
Freeman has held a number of jobs since leaving high school, most of them in manufacturing including work as a seasonal employee at Char-Broil. He also drove a taxi.
In summer 2008, Freeman was hired by CSU as a custodian on the main campus, cleaning the Lumpkin Center, the university’s athletic arena. In fall 2009, he took advantage of a tuition assistance program offered to university employees and began taking classes.
He started with developmental courses to get to where he could enroll in a degree program. It took eight years, starting and stopping and taking two or three courses here and there to earn a degree that is normally secured in four.
Morse describes Freeman as “humble, dependable, trustworthy, a person of great character.” And he is also a role model for those taking an unconventional approach to a college degree.
Morse said Freeman doesn’t realize the inspirational nature of the accomplishment.
“It means a lot to know he has stuck with it and he has put a lot of time, energy and effort in over the last nine years — a class here, a class there,” Morse said. “I had chills when he walked across the stage.”
Morse was among a small handful of people who knew the significance when Freeman’s name was called Saturday and the custodian walked across the stage to get his degree.
“He doesn’t,” Morse said. “I am glad to know that it has gotten someone’s attention. I have probably 75 custodians that work for me. You hope that this will help to motivate them to know, no matter when position you hold in life you can do whatever you set your mind to.”
Freeman said he will be looking for a job that uses his Management Information Systems degree.
“At the same time I am going to continue to work here,” he said. “ I am never going to cut my connection from CSU. They are always going to be a part of my life. While I have been here, the athletic department has been an inspiration to me. These young people come in here, they are athletes, they play these games, they get these degrees and they move on. It is an inspiration to me.”
Freeman now has plans to contribute to his alma mater.
“When I get to the point I can,” he said, “I am going to support the athletic department of this school because it means that much to me.”