Jane Freeman, who with her husband and future governor Orville Freeman was among the founding forces of the modern DFL Party in Minnesota, died Friday at the age of 96.

"She was an amazing Minnesotan," said former Vice President Walter Mondale, noting how the Freemans, along with others such as Hubert and Muriel Humphrey, Donald and Arvonne Fraser and Mondale and his wife, Joan, were key figures in the early years of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

"But she also was part of a new development, which is now in full force, of women who looked at themselves as having their own qualities and not just those connected with their husbands."

Betsy O'Berry of Ramsey got to know Freeman well while running for state treasurer in 1998.

"She's always been smart, classy, strategic and just fun to be around," she said. "For a number of us active in DFL politics, we've all thought when we grow up, we want to be just like Jane Freeman."

Freeman also was the mother of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

As first lady of Minnesota, Freeman deftly forged new paths. One was hosting a weekly TV program, "Mrs. Freeman Reads Her Mail," in which she read constituents' letters on children's issues, mental health, food safety and conservation.

Yet, she noted in her insightful contribution to the Minnesota Historical Society's Oral History Project in 2007, she always opened the program "with something sort of folksy, like, 'Boy, my apple pie this morning was a disaster. … I need recipes.' "

Jane Charlotte Shields was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., on May 25, 1921. Her father was a teacher and labor organizer and her mother's parents were missionaries. The family moved to Minnesota in 1936. While at the University of Minnesota studying political science, Shields met Orville Freeman, and they were married on May 2, 1942, while he was stationed at the Marine Corps Base in Virginia. When her husband deployed, she took a job in the office of the Secretary of War.

After World War II, the family returned to Minneapolis, where Orville Freeman worked for Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey. As her husband's political career developed, so did her participation. When he was elected governor in 1954, she had a number of her own initiatives, such as shifting the Dome Club, a traditional luncheon group for legislators' wives, into more of an advocacy role, organizing monthly visits to state institutions, especially mental institutions and those caring for children.

"She was clearly my father's most valuable adviser," said Mike Freeman. He added that his own son, Matthew, who's active in political campaigns, has followed suit. "She was his best sounding board, even until three or four months ago."

"She wouldn't take credit for telling you what to do, but offered enough to guide you into coming to a decision in a sound way," Matthew Freeman said. "She's definitely the smartest political mind in the family. She got her money's worth out of her mind, body and soul."

Life changed in 1960, when Orville Freeman was appointed U.S. secretary of agriculture. Arriving in Washington as little-known Minnesotans, Jane Freeman's profile rose quickly after Larry O'Brien, who directed John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, asked her to chair a major fundraiser.

Mike Freeman, a teenager then, recalled how their home had a second phone connected directly to the White House. One night it rang, and his father answered. "Someone said, 'This is the White House operator,' and he said, 'This is Secretary Freeman.' Then she asked, 'Is Mrs. Freeman there?' The president was calling to thank Jane on what a great job she'd done."

She traveled extensively with her husband, with a focus on providing insights into family conditions in various countries. They were among the Cabinet members on board a Boeing 707 heading for Japan on Nov. 22, 1963, when news came that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

She went on to work with the United Nations and UNICEF, and served as president of the national Girl Scout Council from 1978-1984. The couple eventually returned to Minnesota, where he died in 2003; she remained active in public affairs.

"First Lady Jane Freeman was a founding mother of the DFL," party Chairman Ken Martin said in a statement. "Her humanitarian heart and political savvy established her as a leader in international development, women's empowerment, and Democratic politics. She dedicated her career to improving the lives of everyday families — whether they lived right here in Minnesota or on the other side of the world."

Gov. Mark Dayton also released a statement praising her, calling her "a wonderful First Lady, and an outstanding civic leader."

Mondale also noted Freeman's commitment to her family — along with "an inexhaustible supply of notes and a good pen" — even in the midst of being a busy political household.

"They had a strong family, which we're missing in some ways in politics today, and I think it's good that we start thinking about that again," Mondale said. "It would be a good way to remember Jane."

She is survived by son, Mike Freeman, Minneapolis; daughter, Connie, Washington, D.C.; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. April 7 at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, 5025 Knox Av. S., Minneapolis.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185