DIVINITY Online Edition

Sarah Freedman Dí92: The Early Years
By Elisabeth Stagg



Photo by Elisabeth Stagg

Born to Episcopalian parents in Sharon, Pa., Sarah Virginia (“Sally”) Schwab, grew up with an older brother in what she describes as a “blessed nest.” Her mother was a homemaker, deeply devoted to her husband and two children; her father a steel mill engineer whose promotions moved the family to Ohio, Chicago, Gary, Ind., and Detroit before they settled in Beaver, Pa.

A self-described “WASP princess, with all the limitations thereof,” Schwab entered Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., devoted to “being popular and thinking too much about the MRS. Degree.” But a series of setbacks soon followed. Her father died. She was black-balled by all seven of Allegheny’s sororities. She contracted a near-fatal case of pneumonia.

“I had some sense of ‘getting thrown back from that which is too much for us,’” she says. She switched her major from drama to English literature, but continued to suffer from exhaustion. Finally she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent a post-grad year in the Beaver County Sanatorium. Cured thanks to the advent of drug therapies for TB, she was able to complete her education credits. Her first job was teaching freshman English and directing school plays at Labrobe High School. She attributes her decision to go to the University of Pittsburgh for a master's in literature to her students. “It must have been those 9th graders,” she says.


Photo by Reed Criswell


Sarah Freedman D’92 and Stanley Hauerwas, G.T. Rowe professor of theological ethics.


While working at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Sally met Tony Bove, a young poet from an Italian stonemason family. The young couple became engaged, and Bove left to study for a doctorate in Spanish at the University of Madrid. A few months before the planned wedding, Sally and the Bove family in Pittsburgh got a phone call from Madrid: Tony had suddenly died of pneumonia.

Later there was a letter from a friend describing Tony's last words: “Not only art. Very important. Not Only Art.” Sally shared Bove’s poetry manuscript with former poet laureate of the U.S. Stanley Kunitz, with whom Bove had begun a correspondence. Kuntiz’s response was, “How can we afford to lose a single voice that is honest and fine and brave and compassionate?"

Bereft, Schwab moved to New York City and took a job working for the curator of the Egyptian Department of the Brooklyn Museum. “I went down ‘seven years to Egypt,’ says Schwab. Eventually she met Sandor Freedman, and in 1967 they were married. Dr. Freedman taught solid state physics at Brooklyn Polytechnic, but in the early ’70s became attracted to research on migratory birds by Peter Klopfer's Animal Behavior Study Group at Duke. The Freedmans and their toddler daughter, Virginia, migrated to North Carolina, where Freedman—who had never lived out of New York City—put a mobile home in the woods by the Eno River and fell in love with the South.


Photo: Divinity School Archives


Sarah, far right, and fellow divinity graduates line up during graduation ceremonies at Wallace Wade Stadium in May 1992.


Sarah began doing part-time secretarial work through Kelly Girl and was offered a permanent position working with the head of the U.S. Study Section in Bacteriology at the UNC Medical School at Chapel Hill. But the opportunity to work with W.D. Davies proved irresistible. A New Testament scholar, Davies was among the foremost scholars who bridged New Testament and Judaic studies. (Admittedly, his living in the first century here and now often led to his locking the keys in his car with its engine running.) Davies served on the Duke faculty between 1950-1955, and then returned in 1966. He retired in 1981 as the George Washington Ivey professor emeritus of advanced studies and research in Christian origins.

Within a year after beginning work with W.D., her husband’s secular Jewish roots and that she was now a Catholic led Sarah to a “marvelous spiritual crisis.” Faculty member Jill Raitt referred the couple to a Jesuit, and soon “the Freedman family had a family priest.” In 1975 the couple had a Catholic wedding ceremony at the Newman Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. W.D. Davies was among the wedding guests. Sarah has worshiped there “ever since. I’ve been there through good and bad.”

When Sandy Freedman died in 1999, their daughter Virginia planned his memorial service on neutral ground—the Zen Buddhist temple on Route 86 near Hillsborough, N.C. In tribute to her father’s acquired love of all things Southern, the ecumenical service included the National Champion Country Hollerer, as well as a Catholic priest and readings from William Cullen Bryant, Flannery O’Connor, and the Kaddish. “We had a good and helpful service,” says Sarah.


Photo by Virginia Freedman


Mary Ann Andrus (left) and Stanley Hauerwas with Sarah at her retirement party in the Alumni Memorial Common Room, July 15, 2005.


Freedman attributes her awakening to political activism to the divinity school. She has traveled to Washington, D.C., and to Raleigh for the Million Mom March for gun control, and often to the (former) School for the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. She is a frequent contributor of letters to the editors of Triangle newspapers and has an “addiction to news." She has also written and published poetry. Her poem “For Sister Weavers” appeared in the first issue of Lógia, the independent creative arts magazine of the divinity school, in April 2004.

In retirement, she says, “Maybe I’ll read some Hauerwas. It's interesting that one of the most vocal Duke campus intellectuals would be a Jesus man.” Not much letting on as yet as to what all she has in mind, Sarah says “Of course, I must continue on the paths the divinity school put me on.”


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