OPELIKA — Dr. Richard Freeman’s office at Pediatric Associates of Auburn (which includes Drs. Ellen Royal, Rian Anglin and Katie Wolter) overlooks beautiful woods where wild turkeys have been known to roam. Inside his office are keepsakes of his past from photos of his time in the U.S. Navy to an identical propeller from a Piper J-3 Cub, the airplane he learned to fly in.
In Tullahoma, Tenn., Dr. Freeman put his physics and mathematics degree to work as a civilian employee of ARO, Inc., a civilian contractor for the U.S. Air Force. Although the company had four divisions, he chose the aerospace environmental facility because it was responsible for outer space simulations. Before long, Dr. Freeman took advantage of a company perk, which allowed him to pursue his Master’s degree in physics. It wasn’t long when he decided a different career path would be in his future.
“I had about half the coursework done for my master’s degree in physics before I decided that I wanted to do medicine. The company doctor was a really nice gentleman who had been to Vanderbilt Medical School and had retired from his private practice to become our company doctor. He said ‘Son, resign this job, go to Knoxville, do a year of pre-med, and see how you like it. You might be surprised.’ And I did,” Dr. Freeman said.
Knoxville proved a wise decision, not only as a career choice but also as a personal one. While completing a year of pre-med courses, Dr. Freeman met his wife there.
“On our first date, I took Sherry flying. When I was working in aerospace research I had learned to fly and got my private pilot’s license. It was a great first date! We flew over Cades Cove and Fontana Dam. We’ve never forgotten it!” Dr. Freeman laughed.
After Knoxville, Dr. Freeman went on to the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill. He still laughs as he recalls his first day and a special party at the dean’s house.
“The first day is usually for registration and getting books. After that, the dean, Dr. Isaac M Taylor, invited the class over to his home for a reception. There were two boys running around the house. One of the boys was Livingston Taylor and the other was James Taylor…that James Taylor…the musician,” he laughed. “Some of my classmates knew him because he had a band that played in town. Yeah…he was pretty good!”
After he finished medical school in 1970, Dr. Freeman landed in Birmingham where he did a mixed program of internal medicine and pediatrics in the first year of training preparing to stay for his internal medicine residency following completion of his pediatric residency. He had joined the U.S. Navy the year before his pre-med year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. However, after finishing his pediatric residency he received orders to report for active duty in the pediatric department at NAS Jacksonville. In August 1975, he was released from active duty and moved to Opelika where he practiced in a clinic for two years before moving to Auburn where he opened his own medical clinic. It was not long before it was time for him to put on another hat…preceptor for pre-med students.
“In 1977 I got a call from Dr. Frank Stevens who was the professor of chemistry at Auburn University,” Dr. Freeman explained. “The university was trying to start a pre-med program. He asked if I could have some students shadow me in my practice. We’ve been doing that ever since. It’s been years ago, but I had a patient who delivered a baby in Birmingham. When they got ready to go home, the neonatologist called to let me know they were sending the parents and the baby home and to set up an appointment for a follow-up. As it turned out, the neonatologist was one of my pre-med students from Auburn who had rotated through my office. Small world!”
Before long, the flying bug bit again when one of our office nurse’s husband, who happened to be a U2 pilot and flight instructor at Auburn University, invited him on a flight, which he couldn’t resist. Dr. Freeman already had his private pilot’s license and had monitored the Navy’s flight surgeon program when on active duty at NAS Pensacola one summer. He completed the program at Auburn University for a commercial instrument rating, a multi-instrument rating, and his flight instructor rating. Then, Auburn University asked him to become a part-time flight instructor.
“I’m not current, so I don’t fly now. I just pay Delta and bum rides,” Dr. Freeman laughed. “In 1985 the community needed an aviation medical examiner to issue medical certificates to qualified pilots, so I went to school in Oklahoma City for a week to get my certification. I’ve been an AME since 1981. We see airline pilots and Auburn students who are learning how to fly and talk about aviation and flying – it’s a lot of fun. When you’re an aviation medical examiner, you wear a different hat from being a medical doctor. Technically you’re not a treating physician. You’re really an agent for the Federal Aviation Administration. When I put on the AME hat, I’m not diagnosing and not treating but evaluating this person. It is a public service and I see the role from both sides having been a pilot as well.”
In August 2016, Dr. Freeman became a different type of instructor when he was asked to present lectures on various pediatric topics to VCOM Auburn University medical students.
“That’s been a lot of fun, and that’s another hat. I can’t just waltz into the classroom and throw slides up on the screen,” Dr. Freeman explained. “I have to study to prepare for my presentations. It’s good for me, too, because I learn with the students. As physicians, we should never stop learning. I get to refresh my memory, and the students definitely keep me on my toes.”
Dr. Freeman lives in Opelika with his wife Sherry. They have two children. Kelly and her husband, Charlie, live in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. They have three children — Elizabeth, Anna Jane and Charles. Mac and his wife, Ashley, live in Montgomery, and they also have three children — Mattie, Mac III and Annie Barnes.