The first thing Bud Freeman does when he walks into his office on Monday morning is pull out a couple of tiny glass vials from his pocket, each filled with fireflies he caught in his backyard the night before. No longer flickering and fluttering, they now float in an alcohol solution. Freeman looks at them closely.

Then he pours himself a cup of coffee.

The fireflies are a small addition to the hundreds of preserved specimens in Freeman’s office, among them a stuffed, unidentified red parrot perched atop his desk as if ready to squawk in his direction. Freeman’s office is on the first floor of the Georgia Museum of Natural History, a small building on the University of Georgia campus seemingly hidden from plain sight. He’s been director of the museum since 2004.

But Freeman doesn’t stay in one place for too long. If he’s not at the museum, he’s in a genetics lab. During downtime, he might be playing a gig with his Klezmer band. Fieldwork might be on the agenda. On the weekends, he’s usually in a log cabin on the outskirts of Athens that he built with his wife, Mary. 

Bud Freeman plays at The Globe in downtown Athens. (Photo/Sofi Gratas)

Freeman recalls fondly what he was once told by Eugene Odum, founder of the UGA Institute of Ecology, now named in Odum’s honor.

“He said, ‘Bud, they’re going to drag you out by your boots when you’re dead,’” Freeman said, cracking a slight smile.

At 68, Freeman says he doesn’t think he feels fulfilled, per se, because there’s always more to do and learn. He’s a man with a hearty laugh, bright, light-blue eyes and endless stories. He still tears up when he talks about his dog, Otto, who died two years ago.

Catching the right fish

In 1972 he graduated from UGA with a major in microbiology and minors in math and biochemistry. Through a college deferment, Freeman avoided the Vietnam War draft and got a master’s degree from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He started studying fish and loved it. He still owed eight years to the Air Force upon graduation.

Then it was determined by a medical examiner that his hearing was bad in his left ear, bad enough to prevent him from flying planes.

“Spit out like a watermelon seed. I was done,” Freeman said of leaving the airforce. “So I wondered what I was going to do next.”

Freeman ended up back in Athens pursuing a Ph.D. from the department of zoology, which no longer exists. Joshua Laerm — professor and museum director from 1978 until his death in 1997 — recruited Freeman to help him complete a statewide survey of Georgia vertebrates to update the endangered species list. A black-and-white photo of Laerm posing with whale bones hangs on Freeman’s office wall.

On the first floor of the Georgia Natural History Museum, Bud Freeman sits at his desk. (Photo/Sofi Gratas)

‘Windows in time’

The museum comprises a gallery, storage space and research labs for the specimens collected and acquired by UGA since the 1800s. It was only recognized as Georgia’s official museum of natural history in 1999. Six UGA departments own the different specimen collections, collectively forming the museum’s total stock. Efforts to expand and improve the museum space have been ongoing for years.

“He sees his students more as equals. He doesn’t really see himself as superior. And I know he’s a world smarter than me.”

– Emily Noakes, Georgia Natural History Museum intern

Freeman is tired of the museum being referred to as “the best kept secret” on campus. He’s been one of the forces behind its evolution from an unorganized collection of specimens stored on the third floor of the biological sciences building to a state-recognized institution.

Check out a timeline of the museum’s history here

Emily Noakes, a museum intern, has been helping organize and log a shelf full of unidentified fish specimens as her semester project. She took Freeman’s ichthyology class the semester before.

“He sees his students more as equals. He doesn’t really see himself as superior,” Noakes said. “And I know he’s a world smarter than me.”

Freeman talks tenderly of his vision for the museum. To start, he wants more than five to six visitors a day. He pictures having permanent galleries, additional research labs and more spaces for teaching.

Most importantly, he wants people to interact with the over 10 million specimens owned by the museum, ranging from mammals to reptiles, birds to dinosaurs. Most of them are in storage, the bodies, bones, boxes and jars collecting dust in an old furniture warehouse on Atlanta Highway acquired by the university in 2012.

Bones and “cotton eyed joes” — the stuffed specimens nicknamed by Freeman — line the showcase shelves in the Georgia Museum of Natural History’s small building. (Photo/Sofi Gratas)

Freeman doesn’t dwell too much on the issue. Working at a university undoubtedly comes with a hierarchy of decision making and funding allocation that happens way above his head. Plus, his energy is needed elsewhere.

Once a scientist, always a scientist

In the Wares Lab on the fourth floor of Life Sciences Complex, under a mobile of colorful paper fish, Freeman teaches his students how to separate DNA from small fin clippings in an effort to study hybridization in Chattahoochee bass species. It’s not rocket science, but it takes time and patience. But first, a cup of coffee.

“How you look may not be who you really are,” Freeman said, staring at “messy” DNA sequence on a computer screen. To the unknowing eye, it looks like colorful, wavy lines crisscrossing over a spectrum of letters. 

Freeman works closely with undergraduate students in the Wares Lab as they research hybridization and population dynamics in river Southeastern river systems. (Photo/Sofi Gratas)

A gnome sits above an old thermocycler, where the small vials get gingerly placed inside for a slow mixing session.

“To help give good juju over the thing,” Freeman says of the gnome.

At the River Basin Center on south campus, Mary Freeman has a gnome sitting on the top of her organized bookshelf as well. She and Bud have been married over 40 years, meeting for the first time during her undergraduate years at UGA. She wanted to be a veterinarian since she was three years old, but things changed.

“He sees things he wants to investigate and goes at. Sometimes we all sit and watch him for a while, see what he’s gonna do.”

– Mary Freeman, research ecologist and Bud Freeman’s wife

“I fell under the spell of some aquatic ecologists,” she said, talking more about the scientific subject matter, but slightly about the company.

Mary Freeman admits that she’s a “disaster” in lab settings, where Bud thrives. But out in the field, she’s the one with the plan.

“He sees things he wants to investigate and goes at,” she said. “Sometimes we all sit and watch him for a while, see what he’s gonna do.”

Freeman walks through the museum as he’s done hundreds of times, as he does almost every day, pointing out interesting details of the gallery. Every unblinking eye stares back at their caretaker. It’s a “library of dead things” built for people of his nature, people who consider environmental education vital.

“The value doesn’t decrease, it just increases,” Freeman said, regarding the stuffed, pinned and floating specimens around him, some species never to be seen alive again.  “We’ve watched stuff disappear in places that we work.”

Freeman has never killed a specimen for display, only for research. And on the rare occasion that he goes deer hunting, he thanks the deer after shooting it.

“The value doesn’t decrease, it just increases.”
– Bud Freeman



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