Phil Luciano: Legend of the 'Caveman'

Phil Luciano

Larry "Caveman" Freeman scared a lot of people with his thick tongue and freakish strength.

He didn't mind. He liked them anyway. Well, most of them. And even society sometimes push him away as different, he always found ways - all sorts of whacky ways - to get by.

"He was really one of a kind," says brother Roger Freeman, 52. "He was always free-spirited.

"He was just a hustler. That was just his way of life. To us he was an icon. He wasn't no millionaire, but he had a heart of gold."

Caveman was born May 26, 1945, in Mattoon, one of seven siblings. When he was 4, he was on a playground slide with a pal. They started wresting, and Caveman fell to the ground, head-first.

For the rest of his life, he had a speech impediment that left him mush-mouthed, kind of like the cartoon character Droopy Dog. Plus, the accident left him with a slight mental disability: he still could think quickly, such as with mathematics, but his comprehension for new information became a bit slowed.

He dropped out of school at age 16, and three years later his family moved to Peoria. Soon, in various ways, Caveman became something of a legend on the North Side of Peoria.

When he first got here, he helped out with kids sports programs, particularly the North Side Youth Club. He'd run basketball and baseball leagues that aimed to keep wayward boys off the streets.

Youths marveled at Caveman's strength. His frame wasn't massive: he stood about 5 feet, 9 inches and weighed 180. But Caveman's arms were massive: some day his biceps popped out to an amazing 26 inches. For a quarter, he'd let kids touch them.

In softball, his arms were too big to allow him to properly hold a bat with both hands. So, he'd swing one-armed - one time (so goes the story) swatting a ball 400 feet.

But whereas kids liked Caveman, adults often weren't so keen on him.

"Everyone was afraid of him," his brother says. "He was strong as a bull. And he talked a little funny."

Maybe that's why he had trouble getting steady work.

"No one around here wanted to hire him," says longtime friend Phil McWilliams. "I don't know why. Maybe it was the speech impediment. But he was a hell of a worker."

Sometimes, though, he liked work less than beer. For a decade, he'd be employed off-and-on at area Steak 'n Shakes. But he'd often lose his job for failing to show up.

"He'd get drunk and forget to go," McWilliams says, laughing.

Not that Caveman wanted a steady job. Though he never drove - "He just never wanted to," McWilliams says - he loved life on the road. He would spend every May through October with carnivals, criss-crossing the country.

"He ran the octopus or the merry-go-round," McWilliams says. "He just liked being with kids and doing stuff with them.

"I think that was the way he was accepted."

Adds his brother, "That was his life: being around people. He met so many people."

During the winter, he'd often head back home to live with McWilliams. Every Christmastime, he'd often ring the bell for the Salvation Army.

Still, he had a lot of down time during cold months. He used the opportunity to scratch out extra dough. Though Caveman got a monthly SSI check (because of the childhood accident), he supplemented that income with tavern wagers.

He was whiz at pool. If a newcomer agreed to a game, Caveman quickly would have $10 in his pocket. Then he'd offer to play double-or-nothing - one-handed. But one arm was all Caveman needed to win another 10 spot.

Barroom strangers would often marvel at the size of his arms. Caveman would challenge them to an arm-wrestling contest, usually for a sawbuck. He never lost.

Sometimes, he'd give the challenger a chance to win back his money. Caveman would brag he could hoist a car off the ground. Suckers would take that bet, which Caveman would always win - regardless of the size of car.

"I once saw him lift a '65 Olds eight inches off the ground," McWilliams says.

Occasionally, if egged on by pals, Caveman would edge a car, inch by inch, onto a curb. The puzzled driver would come out later, no idea how his auto mysteriously had moved.

Sometimes, Caveman went a bit too far with shenanigans, usually after getting too deep into his mug. For instance, he'd often finish a night out by getting a bite to eat. Sometimes, he wouldn't pay.

"I don't know if he'd hallucinate or what, but he'd forget to pay," McWilliams says, chuckling. "I'd hear on the police scanner, 'Trouble with Caveman at the Steak 'n Shake on Main Street.'

"Cops would never come after him alone. It was always six officers."

But once they'd arrive, he'd calm down. Moreover, when sober, he'd always shout to police a friendly, "Hi, buddy!" or "Hi, handsome!"

Mind you, outside of scuffles in bars, Caveman didn't hurt anyone. Well, there was the time he got arrested at a bus station rest room. A 17-year-old had dropped a dime into a pay toilet, but Caveman barged past apparently penniless and eager to relieve himself.

"If you don't let me, I'll kill you," the anxious Caveman blurted, landing him a night in the country pokey.

Perhaps his oddest crime was a federal charge. Caveman was slapped with a count of mail fraud for failing to pay for more than $10,000 worth of mail-order magazines, books and other merchandise.

He didn't even want the stuff. When McWilliams asked him why he'd so many orders, Caveman yipped, "I like getting mail!"

The judge was kind. Looking at 20 years in prison, Caveman got just five years on probation.

Caveman's antics didn't slow until about a decade ago, when he met Wilma Waggoner at a party. He took an immediate shine to the Creve Coeur woman. That was remarkable to McWilliams, because Caveman had not been serious with women over the years.

"He got married way, way back when, and that lasted only a month," McWiliams says.

Still, Wilma caught his eye, and he eventually won her over. She let him move into her home.

"My mom is an easy-going person, just like he was," says her daughter, Cindy Lou Waggoner, 40.

Still, Wilma wouldn't stand for his carousing and hustling.

"She had to get him on order," her daughter says, laughing.

Caveman gladly became something of a homebody. He'd still drink his beer, but mostly at home. He'd pile up endless mountains of cans, which he'd save for a year. Every birthday, he'd turn in the aluminum for cash and buy as big a cake as the money could buy. Then he'd invite over friends for a party.

The last one would be in May. Diabetes had landed Caveman in a wheelchair, and the problems got worse of late. He died Monday of a diabetes-related infection.

His family, though grieving, has been more focused on the joy over Caveman's finally finding acceptance and love, thanks to Wilma.

Says his brother, "There's not enough words to say thanks for what she did: taking him off the streets, and showing compassion and love, through thick and thin."

Caveman was buried today. His friends and family have a hard time getting a word in edge-wise about every story about the man.

"There'll never be another Caveman," McWilliams says. "Never."

Phil Luciano can be reached at or (309) 686-3155.