J. J. “Tiny” Freeman, larger than life

Tiny and my mom at Larry's Greenfront in Seattle, 1984

Tiny and my mom at Larry’s Greenfront in Seattle, 1984


Tiny Freeman was a legend in Seattle. He passed away at the age of 72, Thursday, June 13th, 2013. Tiny was one of the earliest DJ’s at the old KRAB when it was at the doughnut shop on Roosevelt near 92nd which was the terminus of the 22 Roosevelt Bus. I know that because I went there to record an opinion piece with Scott Ballard on the dangers of Atomic weapons testing in the Aleutians.

Tiny was well thought of by Emmett Watson, Seattle’s favorite curmudgeon. He said of Tiny, “he is all you could ask of in a friend”. Tiny worked the tugs from Seattle to Alaska; he was a truck driver, a Vietnam vet which allowed him to use the VA hospital in the last years of his life. Tiny was one of the volunteers that refurbished railroad cars on the Snoqualmie railroad and was the engineer on the train to Mt. Rainier close to his home in Elbe.

Tiny helped organize Bluegrass Festivals and he played in a Dixieland jazz band at the old Owl in Ballard. Tiny was involved in a little bit of everything. He was a great DJ and he knew his music.
Maybe one of the best stories written about Tiny was Susan Paynters 2007 column. Tiny had just returned empty handed from his quest for Rose’s affection. The article is written on Tiny’s return to Seattle and the party for him after leaving Montana and Rose.

Tiny was a wharf rat on the docks of San Francisco as an early teen. This would have been about 1954. He joined the army and was with 84th Engineers Battalion where he was in Vietnam, I think two tours. There is a picture of him in Midway sitting at a picnic table probably when they were on R and R (rest and relaxation) or he could have been stationed there.

One of the great stories Tiny tells is from his days waiting to ‘muster’ out from the Army. He was in the ‘Reception Station’ at Fort Ord near San Francisco on the Monterey Peninsula. After coming back from Vietnam and Midway, he still had months to serve. It was common for soldiers returning from overseas to help train future soldiers heading overseas. In this case Tiny was assigned to a unit that was training to go to Vietnam as a replacement force. As Tiny tells the story, a lot of the soldiers were just kids from Brooklyn.

Fort Ord was part of the Sixth Army and it was headquartered in the Presidio which was near the Golden Gate Bridge. The had a shoulder patch with a white six sided star, commonly referred to as the Star of David with a big red ‘A’ in the center of the star. Tiny was a jokester, and whenever he could ‘pull someone’s leg’, he would.

So this just came natural for Tiny, he just got the idea during one of the formations for training he told the ‘kids’ from Brooklyn, Welcome to Jewish Airborne. As Tiny said, this caused a uproar in the ranks. One kid yelled, “he ain’t no Jew and he ain’t jumping out of no plane”. Tiny with a straight face said, “well the Army doesn’t make mistakes”. He told these gullible kids to look on their shoulder patches. He said that is the Jewish Star of David and the red ‘A’ is for airborne. These kids freaked out, Tiny said that one kid went screaming that he was jumping out of no goddamned plane. He wasn’t no Jew. He went yelling this into the ‘old man’s’ office. A named used to describe the rank of commanding officer, even if the officer was a kid. He was called the ‘old man’.

Tiny said the Captain yelled, “Freeman” get the hell over here. Tiny responded, and the Captain said, “did you tell these soldiers they were in Jewish Airborne”? Tiny admitted he might have. The Captain cried, “Jesus Tiny these guys are skittish enough already. Now they think they are going to have to jump out of a plane. They are scared shitless. It’s bad enough trying to beat ‘Charlie’ now I have to take you on.” Tiny enjoyed telling that story. I can just imagined how it went down. Tiny was a great story teller.

After the army Tiny ends up in the Seattle, Tacoma area. In the army his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was as diesel mechanic and heavy equipment operator including truck driver. This led to working in the forest, as a skidder operator and truck driver. He also worked on the equipment. All of this would help him land a job on the docks as a tug boat hand. Some late 60’s newspaper stories featured Tiny as one of the biggest deck hands the writer had ever seen. He told Seattle P-I columnist Emmett Watson that he was 5’ – 18’’ tall and weighed 300 pounds. The writer described him as sporting a 1890’s mustache with a black bowler hat.

Already Tiny was becoming a character on the scene of Seattle. He had worked on tugs taking him to Bellingham and Alaska including Southeast Alaska. His character sttus was cemented when he ran against Brock Adams for Congress. He used Bobby Foster’s Central Tavern as his campaign headquarters. He also had been doing an unique bluegrass radio show on the equally unique KRAB radio.

He was at KRAB in the early days but not the beginning. Lorenzo Milam applied for a frequency at 107.7 on the FM dial. Milam had always told people he did this because it was an ideal frequency at the end of the dial and he believed it would have value at some point to commercial broadcasters who would one day see it’s value. As we know, Milam was correct.

Tiny was juggling all of these things and trying to hustle up a living at the same time. Tiny was resourceful. During the campaign he sold T shirts, which today would be very valuable. He even at one point had his own brand of wine, Tiny Veeno I think. He sold fruit in Mukilteo near the ferry landing. He drove truck up and down the coast, he worked as a deck hand on tugs and also a cook and a mechanic. He tried commercial radio, but had told me he hated it.

One of his girl friends was a woman I knew that bartended at the Blew Eagle across from Bethlehem’s Re-bar shop where I worked. Big Marsha, she had a tattoo on her inner lip that she proudly showed off when a customer got out of hand. Eat butt, it read. A glimpse of that was all that was needed when this Amazon woman showed her artwork. Marsha always bragged to me that she had silver dollar sized nipples. She is a real woman. I liked her a lot. She made every trip to the ‘Blew’ memorable.
The ‘Eagle’ attracted some bad ass bikers that worked in the ship yards, the foundries and the steel mill. All of the outlaw gangs were represented, the ‘Gypsy Jokers’, the ‘Angels’, the ‘Bandito’s’ just to name a few. These guys all had Harley Hogs and were regular, they just were in biker gangs that the law didn’t care for. It got so wild in the bar the owner had a sign that read ‘check your colors’ at the door. The ‘colors’ were usually jackets, jean type with your gangs badge. Wearing them inside the ‘Eagle’ caused many a fight.

Tiny was at home in these type of places, so was ‘Big Marsha’. Her other job was a substitute teacher for Seattle Schools, later she would end up at METRO in the traffic division office as a coordinator. Tiny knew women all over Puget Sound.

His biggest love was old trains. He worked on several restorations of historic railroads in Snoqualmie, Bellingham and his last love . . . the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad (MRSR ). Tiny especially loved the old steam locomotives and was licensed to operate them which made him very valuable. When I first met him his basement of his home off of Rainier Avenue in Seattle was completely consumed by an HO scale railroad diorama.

Tiny is the one that showed how ‘cue’ up a record on a turntable while playing a record on another one. I had volunteered at KRAB when I was in a cast up to my waist after knee surgery. The people were great. I was literally a student of the infamous Tiny Freeman School of Broadcasting. During that time, there was a very expensive Ron Baille school. Baille was a former KOL DJ that found a good living teaching young people how to get a job in radio, most never got one.

Rose and I would go up to KRAB on Saturday nights along with others when Tiny did his show. He let me cue records and do other things which really helped me have a career in radio for nearly two decades. I always was grateful for Tiny for letting me learn. All of the folks at KRAB were very helpful and I got a real education in radio at the same time.

Tiny and I became good friends during this period and I learned a lot about him. He met my mother, my sister and my daughter during this time. It was a good time. I got the go ahead to go back to Bethlehem, it lasted a month and I blew out my knee for the second time and had to go under the knife. I went back to KRAB and I did the same thing I had done before.

Eventually I healed, moved on to a paying job at KBCS on the Bellevue Community College campus. While there I traded my work as a Public Affairs director with classes in journalism. This led to a job in Omak, which is east of the cascades off of Highway 97.

After a stint there I landed a job in Wrangell and Tiny was doing his thing, KRAB was still going on and Tiny was working there while picking up work driving loads south. He also got some trips as a deckhand to Alaska and did part time work as a bouncer at the J and M.

It was in Indiana after Rose and I split sheets for the last time that Tiny and her became friends while Tiny was living next to the Merchant’s café in a flea bag hotel. Rose was doing intern work at the VA. One day they saw each other and struck up a friendship. Rose was living on her boat, the Slue Slug and Tiny would stay there and Rose would stay at his hotel room because it was close to the VA on Beacon Hill.

Even then Tiny was having trouble with his diabetes, his lungs and finally listened to his VA doctors to quit smoking. Later he quit drinking. Still he was getting around, his weight had gone up according to Rose and he wasn’t doing as much. He did do work for his room like cleaning up the inside of the hotel and the ‘john’.

I hooked up with Tiny again when he was living with Rose in Dixon near Missoula. I think I had gone back with my friend Diane to visit Rose on our way to meet with friends in Glacier National Park. Rose and Tiny were playing house and Tiny was going to the VA in Missoula but was pretty angry with the treatment.

He and Rose had a parting of ways and Tiny moved into a small apartment in Dixon. I saw him there at a later trip, this was all around 2007 when I saw him again. He was renting a U-Haul truck to haul his ‘stuff’ back to Elbe. It was at this time that Paynter wrote her article about Tiny.

I saw him a couple of years later at the VA and kept pretty close to him from that point on. I visited him several times before I left to go to Mexico, I guess that would have been 2009. His lung issues had forced him to a wheel chair. He had said all of this wasn’t from smoking but from his ingestion of Agent Orange which is why he said he was being treated at VA. He wasn’t real happy with his condition. He was being hassled by people living in Elbe who Tiny said were ‘strung out on meth’. His family didn’t think he was safe so they were trying to get a better living situation for him.

Eventually this led to the Old Soldier’s Home in Orting. Tiny said he hated this place, didn’t like the people that worked there and wanted to get back to Elbe which Rose said had been ransacked.
When I got back from Mexico I talked with Tiny a couple of times and Joan Rabinowitz authorized my use of a tape recorder to interview Tiny. Joan was there at the end of the old KRAB and was now a director of the Jack Straw foundation which had taken over for the old KRAB. They had a frequency which I think used the call letters of KSER
Rose told me another one of many of Tiny stories. He was helping a friend in Skagway with a tour bus business. Rose said Tiny would drive yellow buses to Skagway and then fly back and drive another one up. This involved many buses and a lot of trips. Remember Tiny had driven trucks up and down the Pacific Coast hauling anything and everything including logs. He was helping a friend get started up in their enterprise in Skagway and he never had a problem helping anyone in need. The KRAB web site has many of the stories written about him over the years.

The interview never happened, the day I was on my way to Orting I called Tiny, there was no answer. I tried to find someone to talk to and was unable to make contact. Rose found out that Tiny had been taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup. His condition was not known. It didn’t look good and declined from there. He left Puyallup and was sent after he stabilized to the VA hospital for treatment for his troubled breathing. He went back to Orting where I talked with him for the last time on June 9th. He kept saying he was going back to Elbe and was really angry because they had taken away his wheelchair. Rose had told me his son had died, but he wanted nothing to do with him. Tiny was very angry and this person that had so much life, seemed to be having that very life slip away from him. He had outlived his fame.

I will always remember Tiny; he did two very important things for me in my life. He taught me radio and he taught me about life. I learned from him I would try and to live healthier and get more exercise and try to find ways to say yes.

The last call for Tiny was held about a month from the day he died at noon on July 13th at the Central Saloon. Later in the month his ashes were blown skyward from the smokestack of the steam engine as it wound its way from Elbe to Mineral Springs on the Mount Rainer Scenic Railroad. Tiny had worked tirelessly on the steam engine and was one of very few who had the necessary training to be certified. I will miss Tiny.

Tiny's daughter Laura

Tiny’s Last Ride, his daughter announcing ‘all aboard’ . . . his ashes blown into the air near his home in Elbe


3 thoughts on “J. J. “Tiny” Freeman, larger than life

  1. Thanks for your posting about Tiny – RIP , I met him in the Army and served with him in Vietnam in 65-66 He truly was a character to to remember ! I last visited him in Elbe where he spent most of his time in a wheelchair but still shared his stories !

  2. I met Tiny before I met him. He was the remarkable talent on KRAB’s bluegrass program. Later, I hosted the KRABgrass show Saturday nights after one of the times Tiny quit KRAB. He dropped by one Saturday night, and I was introduce to Tiny’s favorite test, swearing up a storm with whatever foul observation he could shove down my throat. I passed the test by spewing it right back in his ear. We bonded, and when he moved to Elbe saw each other every once in a while. He liked my wife, Ilse, especially when she took his best ribald rants and didn’t bat an eye. The tribute above, and Susan Paynter’s 2007 column are the best tastes of the Tiny I knew. Thank you. So glad it was posted on KRAB radio on Facebook

  3. I am privileged to get to visit and remember my dad. Thank you all for the memories. He may have outlived his fame, but he never outlived the love some very special people had for him.

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