PROFILE: Constructing a dream: John O. Freeman Sr. builds Mt Laurel

Published 4:26 pm Wednesday, March 16, 2016

John and Marie Freeman stand on Mt Laurel Avenue, in the center of the town that John O. Freeman built. (For the Reporter / Dawn Harrison)

John and Marie Freeman stand on Mt Laurel Avenue, in the center of the town that John O. Freeman built. (For the Reporter / Dawn Harrison)

By MOLLY DAVIDSON / Staff Writer

John O. Freeman Sr. knows Mt Laurel like the back of his hand, probably because he built it.

Freeman came to Mt Laurel in 2001 when the town was merely 12 homes and an incomplete town center. Now, 15 years later, Mt Laurel is thriving, with two schools, a bustling town center and 12 active home construction sites.

Mt Laurel’s success is not only due to Freeman’s craftsmanship and building expertise, it’s also due to his personality.

“I’ve known Mr. Freeman since 2002… he’s the kindest, gentlest man of integrity,” Mt Laurel Sales Manager Della Pender said. “It’s a rare person that you meet with those qualities.”

Although he is technically the vice president and general manager of EBSCO Development Company, Inc., many know Freeman as the ‘unofficial mayor’ of Mt Laurel. Freeman not only oversees every home construction project, he also looks out for the day-to-day functioning of the town, addresses any neighborhood concerns and attends to residents’ personal requests.

“He is right there to build a ramp or build stairs on his own time to help a neighbor,” Pender said. “This community is his home, this community is his yard… he wants this place to thrive.”

From the beginning

Freeman has been in the building industry for more than 60 years, and at the present time, he is the oldest licensed builder in Alabama.

“He’s so proud of that (license) number,” Marie Freeman, John Freeman’s wife, said.

While he is known across the state as a master homebuilder, it was not always that way.

John Freeman originally started out at the Birmingham-based pipe and supply company. He built his first home for himself at age 22, while he was still a steel smelter.

“I built my first home in Clay County on 32 acres, it took me a year and one day,” John Freeman recalled. “I decided I really liked to be in the building business.”

John Freeman followed his passion, leaving his job and benefits and to set out on his own as a builder.

“Of course they thought I was crazy back then, and I probably was,” John Freeman said with a laugh.

Business started out slow, with odd jobs here and there. John Freeman’s big break came when he was hired to build an addition to a former coworker’s house. The $4,000 job included construction of a bathroom and a master bedroom.

After that first big project, business quickly picked up. In the following year John Freeman built 11 homes.

John Freeman got his first commercial job in 1960 when his church hired him to build a chapel and Sunday school wing. After that, John Freeman turned his attention to commercial projects, schools and apartments. He constructed 22 new schools and school additions, and at one point he owned or was part owner of 1,800 apartments in the Birmingham area.

Throughout his career, John Freeman has operated under an individual building license, pinning his reputation on the quality of his craftsmanship.

“You’re putting it all on the line (with an individual license),” John Freeman said.

John Freeman was in semi-retirement, helping his son John build in the Greystone community, when Mt Laurel founder Elton Stevens Jr. called him back into the business.

Coming to Mt Laurel

“Elton Stevens Jr. called me up on a Friday… about the possibility of doing some work in Mt Laurel,” John Freeman recalled. “The following Monday, Elton called me and said, ‘Where are you? I thought you were going to be at work today.’”

Freeman accepted the job offer and went to Mt Laurel.

“That’s his passion, he loves to build, he never really retired,” Marie Freeman said. “(Coming to Mt Laurel) was his excuse to do a little ‘temporary’ work.’”

Freeman first came to Mt Laurel in 2001 as the head of the Mt Laurel-exclusive Town Builders company. The town looked a little different back then, with just 12 houses and the beginnings of a town center under construction.

“When he first brought me out here to see (Mt Laurel), I said, ‘Who in the world would live here,’” Marie Freeman recalled. “It was just so far (out there) to me.”

Although Marie Freeman was originally apprehensive, the couple moved from their Greystone residence to their current home on Mt Laurel Avenue.

John Freeman quickly put his building skills into action, adding homes to the budding community and finishing the quaint Mt Laurel town center, complete with restaurants, medical offices, shops and boutiques.

“He brought in a sense of, certainly, outstanding quality,” Pender said. “He changed the very fiber of building that house.”

In addition to his experience, what sets John Freeman apart from others in the building industry is his care and attention to the “little details,” Pender said. From small changes to make a home more energy efficient to special customized features, John Freeman ensures everything is done to create a homeowner’s ideal house.

“We want them to feel good about (their home), love their home, love the quality of it and the decision they’ve made,” Pender said. “It’s their dream, and because it’s their dream Mr. Freeman wants to help them fulfill their dream.”

John Freeman maintains a close relationship with each future homeowner while their house is being built, and continues that friendship even after the project is complete.

“He’s not just a builder and go home, that’s not Mr. Freeman,” Pender said. “When the house is closed and the keys are given to the homeowner, Mr. Freeman doesn’t go away, he’s their friend…He knows literally every neighbor.”

The ‘mayor of Mt Laurel’

As the vice president and general manager of EBSCO Development Company, Inc., John Freeman manages Mt Laurel and is the general manager of Moss Rock Building Company, which has commercial projects throughout the greater-Birmingham area.

Managing a town is no easy task.

“There’s no time off… there’s always something,” Marie Freeman said. “He gets up, first thing in the morning and he’s on the phone, getting dressed and shaving at the same time.”

Every morning before heading into the office or doing any other task, John Freeman drives through Mt Laurel. He circles the town to ensure the streets are clear of downed trees or branches, garbage has been collected and everything is as it should be.

“He rides in that car a lot, I bet he circles this neighborhood 50 times a day,” Marie Freeman said with a laugh.

Each day, John Freeman stops by every single home construction site in Mt Laurel. He makes sure the project is on track, shipments of materials have arrived and each construction team has the tools they need to complete the job.

“We are doing a lot of development right now… (and) he is continually driving and checking on the jobs,” Pender said. “He’s a team player, always has been… I’ve seen him go personally to Home Depot and pick items up (for builders).”

John Freeman also keeps an eye out for Mt Laurel’s businesses and works closely with both of the town’s schools, doing what he can to help them thrive.

“I’m more or less in a rolling office in my car,” John Freeman said.

But being town manager extends far beyond the confines of office walls and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. business hours. John Freeman selflessly gives of himself, fielding residents’ concerns on the weekends and even lending a hand to employees in a time of need.

“He’s an amazing guy… he’s the kind of person you want to go the extra mile for,” Pender said. “I know it sounds like I think he’s a superhero, but he really is in my book.”

Mt Laurel is more than a job to John Freeman, it’s his passion, it’s his community and it’s home to him and his family.

“We’ve been married close to 40 years, and let me tell you, he lives to work,” Marie Freeman said. “It’s his passion, it’s not work to him.”

Like her husband, Marie Freeman is also a pillar of the Mt Laurel community. She volunteers at both the town’s schools, Hilltop Montessori School and Mt Laurel Elementary School.

Marie Freeman also makes sure the town is decorated for Christmas each year, organizes the town’s annual Christmas tree lighting and helps with the Fourth of July celebration and parade.

“My favorite thing (about Mt Laurel) is the community events,” Marie Freeman said. “That’s what brings everybody together… and gets people involved.”

Home Sweet Mt Laurel

Marie and John Freeman still live in their home on Mt Laurel Avenue. Every Sunday, they attend Double Oak Community Church down the street, and on Nolen Street, just steps away from their home, they can visit their son Brian and two of their 15 grandchildren.

“He will (take a break from working) if it means a hug from a grandchild,” Marie Freeman said of her husband.

In the 15 years since being introduced to Mt Laurel, the town has become the Freemans’ community and their home.

“It’s so much more than building a house,” John Freeman said.

“I cannot think of any place that I would want to live other than here,” Marie Freeman said. “It’s a safe haven… it’s heavenly.”