In 1967, he began working part-time at a Pizza Hut in Iowa for $1.25 an hour, according to his obituary.
Five years later, he and his wife moved to Fort Wayne and opened their first Pizza Hut on East State Boulevard.
During the ensuing 40 years, he opened 48 more of the pizza chain restaurants throughout Indiana and Ohio plus four Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants and amassed an untold fortune in the process.
Dick Freeland, a local entrepreneur and the chairman of the board of Pizza Hut of Fort Wayne Inc., died Sunday.
He was 76.
According to a release from the Asher Agency, a local marketing and public relations firm, Freeland’s start into the pizza business had humble roots.
Freeland, born in Missouri, was working as an ironworker in Des Moines, Iowa, while his wife worked as an executive secretary when they decided to take a trip to Canada.
Freeland used a credit card to pay for gasoline. He took his first job with Pizza Hut to pay those gas purchases off.
As a restaurant owner, Freeland’s philosophy was to “hire high-quality employees, train them well and empower them to make decisions for the benefit of the customer and the business,” his obituary said.
“Employees need to be in a situation where … they are having fun and like what they are doing. … There are only so many hours, minutes, days weeks that you are going to live on this earth, and that time should be spent enjoying as much of it as you can,’ ” his obituary quoted him as saying in a training tape for new employees.
One of those now former employees, Robert Green, of Churubusco, worked at several of Freeland’s locations when he was younger.
Now in his mid-30s, Green recalled that Freeland’s visits to the restaurants always presented a challenge to make things better than expected.
Freeland was never above lending a hand, Green said. It was common to see Freeland helping unload a truck or making pizzas himself.
And no matter how much success he gained or money he earned, Freeland was certainly never above listening to one of his employees, according to Green.
“Many people may think this is commonplace, but it is more rare than you may think,” Green wrote in a message to The Journal Gazette.
“You could listen to him telling jokes, and watch the emotion on his face as he listened to a sad story about an employee or one of their family members.”
Freeland immersed himself in local, state and national politics during some of his free time, and served as regional finance chairman of the George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle presidential ticket of 1992.
He was a fixture in the community, serving on or becoming associated with numerous boards and groups, including Steel Dynamics Inc., Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, Lutheran Hospital and the Allen County Republican Party, according to his obituary.
He also had an enormous mansion built in the Aboite area – referred to as the “Freeland Mansion” or “Freeland Castle” – that has had locals speculating for more than a decade how much it cost, how much square footage it takes up and even what exactly is inside.
The mansion, though, is hidden away behind hills and trees, somewhat like how the man himself at times tried to present the successes of his public life.
Kim Cook is quoted in the Asher release as saying her father was “a humble man who shunned notoriety and passed off his success to those that made him successful, believing that their success was his success.”
Many others in the community took to social media in the wake of Freeland’s death to discuss what he did for them and others.
Rick Ritter, of Fort Wayne, remembers Freeland as being instrumental in bringing the Moving Wall, a replica of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, to the city in 1986.
According to Ritter, Freeland paid to have a hill landscaped on IPFW’s campus where the wall was to be displayed, took care of food for volunteers and also brought in the necessary port-a-johns.
Ritter only met Freeland on a few occasions, but he remembers very visibly the last time.
While looking at the wall, Ritter began to tear up; Freeland, standing nearby, offered him his monogrammed handkerchief.
It was a simple gesture that left a deep impression.
“He probably never knew the extent of the healing that wall lends itself to, not just veterans, but people in the community who weren’t veterans,” Ritter said. “For me, Dick was a really top-shelf human being.”
Several politicians released statements about Freeland on Monday, including Gov. Mike Pence.
Pence gave Freeland the first Sagamore of Wabash award earlier this year in recognition of his entrepreneurial spirit, public service and courageous work.
“Dick Freeland lived the American dream,” Pence said in his statement. “A loving family man, successful entrepreneur and businessman, Dick Freeland used his success to lift up his community, his state and his nation through generous philanthropy to countless worthy causes.”
Freeland was preceded in death by his daughter, Terri Derheimer, in 2009; his brother, John, who died at age 10; and his half-brother, Fred Freeland, Jr.
He is survived by his wife Deanna; daughter Kim Cook and son Todd Freeland; half-sister Eleanor Mathis and several grandchildren and one great grandchild.
His funeral will be at 11:30 a.m. at The Chapel on Oct. 29.
Calling will be from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. at The Chapel on Oct. 28.
Preferred memorials may be made to Turnstone Center or The Chapel, according to his obituary.