Former sheriff, ‘Whidbey icon’ passes away

Arnie Freund and wife Betty pose for a photograph. He passed away March 5.  - Courtesy photo
Arnie Freund and wife Betty pose for a photograph. He passed away March 5.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

There’s probably no one who had more influence over how Oak Harbor grew than Arnold Freund.

Freund, whose friends knew him as “Arnie,” was a descendent of Whidbey pioneers, a farmer and then a no-nonsense sheriff before becoming an unlikely, but astute land magnate in Oak Harbor. Today, much of the commercial business on the south end of the city is built on Freund land.

But all his prosperity never changed Freund, who was known for his modest lifestyle, his sly sense of humor, his intelligence and kindness to friends and family.

“No matter how financially successful he was, it never took away from what he was,” said long-time friend Arnie Deckwa. “He was a Whidbey icon, but he was just a regular, regular guy.”

Freund passed away on March 5 at the age of 92. A celebration of his life will be held at the Oak Harbor Yacht Club on Sunday, March 13, between 2 and 4 p.m.

The history of the Freund family on Whidbey began in 1851 when pioneers Ulrich Freund, Clement Sumner and Zakarias Taftezon signed the first donation land claims. Ulrich Freund, who didn’t have any children of his own, was Arnold Freund’s great-great uncle. Freund inherited one half of the original 320-acre land claim.

Young Arnie grew up on the family farm and graduated from Oak Harbor High School, where he was known as an athlete. He earned a scholarship for swimming and went to Washington State College, graduating in 1939. It was there he first met Betty, a young woman from Spokane. They wouldn’t marry until years later, but Betty said she knew right away he was the man for her.

“It was love at first sight. There is such a thing,” she said. “I wasn’t in a hurry to get married, but I told my girlfriend he was the one I was going to marry someday.”

After college, Freund went to work for the federal government and then spent four years as an officer in the Marine Corps, including two years in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war he married Betty in 1946 and returned to Oak Harbor to run a dairy on the family farmstead with his father, Ralph. Arnold and Betty had four children, Nancy, Carl, Janet and Sally.

“He was really happy on the farm,” Betty said. “He loved being outdoor and independent.”

Yet Freund was a natural leader. He was very involved in the community and served on a plethora of boards, from the hospital district to the chamber of commerce to the fair board. He first tried his hand at politics in 1956 when he ran as a Republican for Island County commissioner, but lost by just a handful of votes. Then he was appointed as the county sheriff in 1962 and went on to become the longest-serving sheriff in county history. When he retired in 1973, newspaper stories credited him with turning a rag-tag department into a modern, professional office.

Still, he didn’t take himself too seriously. Daughter Nancy remembered one Christmas in which a marijuana plant that had been confiscated by deputies sat decorated in the midst of the sheriff’s office.

“He never lost perspective,” she said. “He understood we all had roles to play but he wasn’t more important than anyone else.”

Deckwa said he worked as a deputy under Freund, but the two men became good friends through Freund’s other passions — hunting and fishing. The two men, along with many other friends, have had many outdoor adventures over the years. Since his retirement, Freund regularly fished in Alaska and hunted deer, elk, moose and birds all over the western continent. He even flew to the Arctic Circle to hunt caribou.

Many of Deckwa’s stories about their time together end with Freund’s good-natured laughter over his friend’s predicaments, whether it was arm-wrestling in a dubious bar in the middle of nowhere or crawling inside a moose to clean it out.

But in later years, Deckwa said the two old friends enjoyed simply going on drives. One his favorite memories was the time he drove Freund to a doctor’s visit in Seattle. On the way back, they stopped at a rest stop and Freund was excited to open up his ancient lunch box. Betty had packed salmon sandwiches for the two men, knowing Deckwa’s love for the pink fish. They sat, shared lunch, watched traffic and talked.

“There wasn’t an expensive lunch in the world that could have taken the place of that one,” he said.

After Freund retired, he dedicated much of his time to hunting, fishing and volunteering. But the city of Oak Harbor kept on growing and started crowding in on the family farm; the city even zoned the land as commercial. Freund leased much of the farm for growing crops until the 1990s, but eventually decided that development was inevitable.

Carl said his father was very independent-minded and refused to work with real estate agents, which probably delayed the development process. Most of property is still owned by the family trust, but is leased to Walmart, Safeway, Whidbey Island Bank, Burger King and many of the other businesses on the south end of the city. Freund prided himself on writing the leases himself.

But even with all his success, Freund became a legend around town for his frugal ways. He and Betty continued to live in the small farmhouse that still sits across from Albertsons grocery store. Former Mayor Al Koetje was a life-long friend and worked with Freund on many projects.

“I would always tease him about an old pickup that he had,” Koetje said. “He always said, ‘That truck is going to last longer than I do.’ Whether or not it did, I don’t know.”

Freund even liked to play off his image. Deckwa said Freund used to “wind up” one of their friends by pretending to be upset about a 3-cent overcharge at a restaurant.

Yet Freund wasn’t stingy when it came to his family. He set up the Freund estate for his family members, who will likely continue to have an important role in the city for years to come.

In the meantime, the community will mourn the loss of “a piece of Whidbey history,” Deckwa said.

“You don’t want to forget people like that,” he added. “That’s what the world is about.”


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