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Corinne Freeman, pioneering St. Petersburg mayor, dies

ST. PETERSBURG — Corinne Freeman, the first female mayor of St. Petersburg and former member of the Pinellas County School Board, died Sunday. She was 87.

Mrs. Freeman was part of a pioneering group of women in Tampa Bay politics, joining the ranks of Betty Castor, Helen Gordon Davis and others who in the 1970s were the first females elected to their respective offices. She served as mayor from 1977 to 1985 before getting elected to the School Board, where she spent another 10 years.

At a time when the post of mayor held less power than it does today, Mrs. Freeman pushed an ambitious agenda that included making the waterfront a focal part of downtown St. Petersburg and laying the groundwork for what would become Tropicana Field.

"Corinne was one of those women who set an example for the young women coming along, at least in Pinellas County if not the broader area as well," said Sandy Freedman, the first female mayor of Tampa who was first elected to its City Council in the 1970s. "And that is the most lasting legacy any of us could leave."

Mrs. Freeman was born in New York and later graduated from a nursing program. In 1968, she moved from Marblehead, Mass., to St. Petersburg with her husband, Michael, whom she called "the most interesting man she ever met," said her son, Stephan Freeman.

While her two sons grew up, she always volunteered her time. After they graduated from high school, she became politically involved and joined the local chapter of the League of Women Voters and the Women's Republican Club.

"The more she volunteered, the more she felt she could make a difference," Stephan Freeman said. "I suspect that she thought she could do a better job doing it than those currently doing it at the time."

She became mayor just a few years after Davis won election to the state House of Representatives and Castor became the first female Hillsborough County commissioner on her way to becoming state education commissioner and president of the University of South Florida.

Mrs. Freeman pushed hard to develop downtown. In 1984, she sponsored a $72 million waterfront project called Pier Park. Voters were not ready for the project, and the City Council ultimately voted it down. After her idea was defeated, to some scorn, Mrs. Freeman scoffed that "(voters) want the city to stay exactly as it is."

She was lambasted for the remark in the press, but it did not deter her from helping to secure the land where Tropicana Field would later be built, long before St. Petersburg had a baseball team.

"I used to call it the 25 year overnight success of St. Petersburg," said former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. "It just means that there were a lot of people who helped make the city what it is now, and I consider her one of those leaders."

If the going ever got tough, Mrs. Freeman could rely on a support system unusual for those times. In the late 1970s, while she served as mayor, two close female friends were also holding strong leadership positions — former County Commission Chairwoman Jeanne Malchon and Martha Rudy Wallace, chairwoman of the Pinellas School Board.

"They were very strong-minded and strong-witted," said Wallace. "Neither one of them could have been pushed around, or they would not have been in the positions they held. Maybe the three of us opened some doors for other women."

Former City Council member Sally Wallace remembers Mrs. Freeman as a big and early supporter of the baseball stadium.

"That was really her interest," Sally Wallace said. "That was where she thought the city should be."

Freeman once called herself "ants-in-the-pants Corinne" because she was so hyperactive. She refused to be idle, and at the age of 62, she decided to begin a career as a stockbroker.

"Who's going to employ a 60-year-old woman?" Stephan Freeman laughed. "It was crazy."

Even so, she found a job at a local firm and excelled.

Her husband passed away in 2001, and the loss made her even more active. She attended the orchestra, frequently ate and socialized at the country club where she held a membership, went to Tampa Bay Rays games as frequently as she could and worked five days a week at the stock brokerage until she retired six weeks ago, her son said.

Even in the hospital, she kept what friends and family described as a feisty attitude, refusing chemotherapy and telling her son not to miss work on her account.

Stephan Freeman said, "She was a woman who was ahead of her time."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Weston Phippen can be reached at wphippen@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

Corinne Freeman, pioneering St. Petersburg mayor, dies 05/11/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2014 12:12am]
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