SELBYVILLE — It’s hard to pinpoint what is more remarkable about Michelle D. Freeman, President and CEO of the Carl Freeman Companies, The Joshua Freeman Foundation, and the Freeman Stage at Bayside.
Is it her underdog-like story of achieving so much despite enduring such heartbreaking loss, or the fact that she lives her life as an open book, using even the hardest of her life’s chapters to inspire seemingly everyone she meets?
Almost 10 years ago, Freeman’s husband, Josh, was killed in a helicopter crash in Dagsboro, Del., and despite immense grief, the stay at home mother of three put on a business suit and took over the companies that her husband left behind. Today, Freeman is one of only a handful of women who hold part ownership in professional sports franchises (the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics) and she has become a respected force to be reckoned with in the male dominated fields of construction, real estate and professional sports.
Yet, perhaps the side of Michelle Freeman that best exemplifies her tremendously tenacious and compassionate spirit is her love of the arts and her philanthropic work.
Freeman sat down with The Dispatch for an in-depth and personal look into her past and spoke about the future of the Freeman Stage.
Q: I remember years ago when we first met and you told me about your vision for the Freeman Stage. You said you wanted to change the fact that when you looked at Coastal Delaware you saw an arts desert. Years later, as you have watched the Freeman Stage and this community grow, have you essentially created an oasis in the arts desert?
A: From a humble place, the fact that you even say that makes my hands start to sweat, but if I was going to be very pragmatic about it and take the emotion out of it — because that question could actually make me cry — then yeah, I think we have. I think the Freeman Foundation, thanks to people like Patti Grimes and the group of people that she has put together to push this forward … I mean, 55,000, almost 60,000 people came to shows last year, and over 10,000 kids. That is kind of mind blowing to me. On a little wooden stage in Selbyville, Del., so I think little by little we are starting to make it happen.
Q: Your story is so unbelievably inspirational. It’s very well documented that life changed for you almost 10 years ago with the death of your husband, Josh. I read in an interview where you said that it feels like it was so long ago, but if you close your eyes, it feels like yesterday. Talk about looking back on those 10 years.
A: When I think about the last 10 years, what I think is that on any given day after a tragedy, you have a choice to either let the tragedy define you, or who you have become after the tragedy define you. That is literally a choice. I think that I live that on a daily basis, and there are days, especially since Matt’s (Haley) death, where without the faith that I have without the belief that I’m here for a reason, it all would have been overwhelming. And quite honestly, there were days in the last 10 years, and in the time post Matt’s death, which has been almost two years, people say ‘you’ve had two tragedies, how do you come out of that?’ I say, you wake up in the morning, you ask God for strength, you ask God to help you continue to find purpose and then you walk the walk. I think that is the most defining thing.
What grief does is stop you short of living. You can stay in grief so much that a part of you dies, and what grief can do is keep you from moving forward.
Q: You talk about overcoming grief, but even the most confident people oftentimes struggle with self-doubt. When you made that decision to step out of house and into the boardroom, talk about how you were accepted as a woman, and how you worked through that self doubt.
A: For me, it was self-preservation. One day I was lucky enough to stay home. I had dropped out of college to go into the real estate business, and Josh and I had the kind of marriage where we discussed this place, and these people and this business for years when we were married. If you look at this business, it’s really about the people and so you ask yourself, ‘do I trust anyone right now with the care of the people who work for me?’ For me, the answer was no.
Nobody is going to care-take my business or care enough about my business as I will. I had more going against me, if you think about it, then I had going for me. When I had a crisis in confidence, which was often, I used to dress very structured after Josh died, it was almost like those business suits were like an armor to the world. I was so broken and grief stricken inside and then I’d sit in these meetings and just be an absolute ball-buster. A lot of my grief came out as creative, needing to express myself, and needing to have a voice. I think the gender thing, honestly, I was unaware of. What I was aware of mostly was that I have this company that this Jewish man started 60-some years ago with nothing, and hundreds and thousands of people have worked there, and it’s my responsibility to keep it going because I knew that was Carl and Josh’s intention.
So, I didn’t even see gender. It wasn’t until I got recognized by Elle magazine in 2013 as one of the 10 most influential women in Washington and I realized that all the women were talking about gender and I was not. I was just surviving.
Q: So when you look back on it all now in hindsight, do you look at it differently?
A: Sure. I met with a capital markets guy the other day, because that’s what my job as CEO is, meeting with people for these lunches and talking about the direction of the company and what we are trying to accomplish and the growth mode that the Freeman companies are in. He said, ‘I never knew you, but I knew it was this male dominated business, and here’s the wife of the CEO’ and he said to me, ‘I gotta tell you that a bunch of us were pulling for you. We knew you had been dropped into this all-guy-high-testorerone-business.’
I think the business community looks back and thinks ‘wow, she made it 10 years’, because I think a lot of people thought I would fail. That makes me giggle and laugh, because I think if you talked to a lot of the VP’s that work for the company and you asked them to describe me in one word, I think they would say “tenacious.”
I’m on the small side, even though I wear a lot of high heels, and I’m very clumsy and I’m kind of goofy. But, when I get to the point where I really believe in something and I really believe in the people who are doing it with me, nothing is going to stop me. I think that tenacity is probably is what got me from 2006 to today.
Q: You mentioned earlier that sometimes people who have achieved success sometimes have a hard time helping those who are less fortunate because they don’t want to just give a hand-out. I think with the way you live your life and the things that you get involved in can show that it can be a teaching moment and it’s more than just a hand out. Yet, as you look at your circle of very successful people, do you think that people do enough to help others who have hardly anything?
A: Yeah, it’s funny. When I watch these weird shows around wealthy people like the Housewives crap or whatever, it’s so funny, because that’s not my experience. Maybe it is that birds of a feather that fly together, but the really wealthy people that I know are ruled by this idea that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ This is something in your character that you see need, and you either give time, talent or treasure. That was interesting about dating Matt [Haley]. He too, and his companies were focused on ‘how do we change the world’, we aren’t just restaurants. I look at my sister Lisa and DiFebo’s and I think, you do what you can do.
You don’t have to be a millionaire to change the world, you just have to look at your unique set of gifts and talents and say, ‘how do I bring that to the world?’ We have a volunteer staff at the Freeman Stage of a 100 plus, and we could not do our shows without them. So, some people write the check and make stuff happen, and others just show up and help to make it happen. Organization could not exist without those people. I think my philanthropy is based on the Starfish principle. You know, there’s a guy walking down the beach and there are thousands of starfish on the beach and he’s throwing them back in the ocean. When someone says, ‘why are you chucking them back in the ocean, you aren’t making a difference’ and the guy says, ‘well, I did (make a difference) to that one.’
Q: You earlier mentioned Matt Haley, who passed away in 2014 in a tragic motorcycle accident in India. You both came from two different worlds, but you had very similar life experiences: You were both recovering addicts, you both wanted to make a difference in the world, and you both had become very successful professionally. Do you think that your relationship with Matt was a meeting of kindred spirits at a time when you both needed each other?
A: I think so. Not many people know this but when he was in India, he was writing. I was given his writing, and it was probably one of the greatest gifts that I’ve ever been given because he was writing like he was writing a letter to me. I think that both us felt like our whole lives had led us to one another. The interesting thing is that today, I think I can talk to you about it pretty cleanly, but eight months ago, I couldn’t have this conversation with you.
Because in a lot of ways, it was harder than my loss with Josh, because my loss with Josh, I could somehow rationalize. I remember saying, ‘why not me’ because I had been around all these military families and I come from this huge Italian family and we have been through tragedy and loss in our life, so I could say, ‘I know down the street that someone has just lost someone so why not me?’ The loss with Matt, it was just like, ‘Are you kidding me? Again?’
Q: Were you angry that you had to make that difficult choice of happiness over grief a second time?
A: Yeah, I was angry this time, and I had self-pity which I didn’t have when Josh died because I was so focused on the business. Certainly, the loss of Josh was magnified by the loss of Matt and the two kind of came together. Again, if not for my family and my friends and this business … at one point, I saved the business and then the business saved me.
Q: I know you are always looking ahead, always planning, always thinking, ‘how do we make it better and bigger and matter more to people?’ What is your hope and plan for future of the Freeman Stage?
A: When I think of the future, I think about this immediate summer. This will be a big push for programming this year. If we had eight national artist shows last year, maybe we’ll do 15 this year. So, this will be the push. All the while, not forgetting our Saturday mornings for kids and trying to continue to grow the next generation of artists and people who care about the arts.
I think the future of the Freeman Stage is that the reality is that we have outgrown our space. For one out of every three people, we try to bring to the Freeman Stage they say the physical plant of the facility doesn’t allow for the production of those shows. We will not leave Bayside. I think Bayside is the home of the Freeman Stage and that is where it will stay, so the question is ‘how do we fit a much larger venue in Bayside?’ I don’t think this will be the Freeman Stage. I think it will be underwritten by the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation, but it will have a different name that will be all-inclusive to the Mid-Atlantic arts organizations that serve in it because this idea is now way past Josh Freeman.
It started with Josh Freeman, but this is really about the people that we can touch, and who attend, and who play there. So, I think in the next few years, you’ll see us unravel a new name, announce a new space and then we’ll go into a capital campaign where every dollar will be important. It’s worth it, every dollar.
(To listen to the entire conversation, click online to www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts.)