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Albanian Jacob Freeney is still ‘KA-ing’ at 100 years old

By Alan Mauldin

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    ALBANY, Georgia (Albany Herald) — When a Herald reporter sat down next to Jacob Freeney on the occasion of his 100th birthday, he got straight to the point. “Do you have $20?” Freeney asked.

When handed a $20 bill, Freeney passed it to wife Marilyn Jenkins Freeney, who was sitting beside him and instructed her to put it away in her purse.

The request was a running joke for the centenarian who was surrounded by friends and relatives gathered on Tuesday afternoon at his West Doublegate Drive residence. As he sat waiting at a table for the cutting of his cake, Freeney asked for the larger sum of $100 from each of those assembled, although they respectfully declined.

Freeney’s journey began on April 30, 1924, in rural Alabama. The birthday celebrant became an educator who worked as a teacher and later principal at Henderson High School in Cuthbert. The school was named for Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, who was principal for 63 years in the segregated school system of the time and father of the jazz musician Fletcher Henderson, who is credited with being the father of the Big Band sound of the 1920s.

Long-time friend Al Wynn recalled witnessing a testament to Freeney’s dedication a few years ago when a former student approached the former educator at Long Horn Steakhouse in Albany.

“One of the students he taught in Cuthbert recognized him,” Wynn said. “He said ‘You changed my life.’ This student was struggling in math. Mr. Freeney just went above and beyond in his duties where he got him proficient.

“(The student) was able to go on to college and the military. He owed his career to Mr. Freeney. That was just one student. There’s no telling how many others he’s helped.”

Freeney’s first career choice was not education. He had dreamed of being a physician. He sent an application to Duke Medical School and was accepted, but when he showed up he encountered a giant roadblock.

“I was the wrong color,” he said.

“He didn’t check on the application ‘black’ or ‘white,’” Wynn said. “When he was in front of them, they said ‘You don’t belong here.’ It’s a shame. He would have been a great doctor.”

After that experience, Freeney attended Alabama State University and Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University, both historically black universities, and received degrees in biology and physics.

Prior to World War II, Freeney joined the U.S. Navy and arrived in the Pacific Ocean Theater a short time after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

“He was in five major battles in the Pacific on a battleship,” Wynn said. “He was in the Pacific, and the kamikaze planes were coming in. Mr. Freeney was on a 40 mm machine gun. During one of the attacks, one of the Japanese prisoners got loose on the ship and Mr. Freeney shot him.”

During his time in the Pacific, Freeney saw action in areas that included Saipan and Okinawa, Japan.

“It was terrible,” the centenarian said of his war experience. “Trying to survive. What we were doing was trying to survive.”

He also boxed while in the Navy and afterward had at least one fight at Madison Square Garden, Wynn said. While boxing fans may be familiar with the term “KO,” Freeney judged his skills by another standard.

“I KA-d, baby,” he said.

Asked to explain his terminology, he said, “I kicked ass.”

During the war, Freeney was witness to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s fulfillment of his promise to return to the Philippines after he was forced to flee during the early months of the conflict.

“Life has been interesting and amazing,” he said. “No question about that.”

Freeney was promoted to 1st class petty officer before he left the Navy.

After his time in Cuthbert, Freeney moved to Lorain, Ohio, in 1963 and was employed in the school system there.

“He was also a city commissioner for the city of Lorain,” Wynn said. “I think he did about eight years there.”

Shortly after his retirement, the Freeneys moved to Albany in 1991.

Despite his advanced age, Freeney recently got a clean bill of health during a doctor’s exam, where he was told he was in excellent condition for his age, said Wynn, who accompanied Freeney on the trip.

“You got a lot of 35-years don’t look as good as me,” Freeney said.

Among those who gathered for the occasion on Tuesday was Tonya Thomas Berry.

“I met him at Waffle House, his favorite place to eat,” she said. “We sat beside him, and we’ve been talking ever since.

“I am thankful to be here. He and I went on many trips and spent lots of time together. Mr. Freeney is awesome. He has been my forever friend. He has the greatest sense of humor, and he has acronyms out the wazoo. Mrs. Freeney is the only one who can decipher them.”

As for the reporter’s $20, as he was heading toward the door to leave, a relative reimbursed the contribution to the 100-year-old birthday boy’s special fund.

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