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Bethel Alumnus Reflects on Relationship with Former President

BY JAIMEE THIRION

It’s hard to miss Tony Morris’ (’02) smile. That’s why it is no surprise that, in addition to teaching at Houston County Schools in Warner Robins, Ga., he’s also a cheerleading coach. During his time at Bethel as a liberal arts major, Morris cheered at Bethel for four years and participated in singing groups like the Collegians and Gospel Teams.

While these accomplishments may attest to a time well spent on campus, probably the most profound and inspiring part of our recent talk came while he reflected on his relationship with former Bethel president and recently deceased, Norman V. Bridges, Ph.D. Of course, Morris did it all with a heartfelt, genuine smile, because as you’ll see — he knew Bridges was one of his biggest fans.

Sitting between the two reflection ponds, Morris’ favorite spot on campus, he said he got the call on Sunday, Aug. 22 that Bridges had passed away the day before. It wasn’t until after that message that, “It hit me, how much of an impact he really had on my life and staying at Bethel.”

Whenever Morris sang with the Gospel Teams, a group of singers who would visit churches and share the gospel through song, the team members were asked to introduce themselves to the audience. Bridges and his wife, Janice, were known to attend the music performances on a regular basis.

“I would introduce myself as Tony Bridges, and he’d say, ‘That’s my son.’”

Morris remembers the laugh from the crowd and then the comment Bridges would make afterwards — something about their similarity in height clearly proving they were related. The crowd obviously could see that Morris towered over his “dad,” which made it all the funnier.

After a year of studying at Bethel, Morris said he was planning to transfer to another college when Bridges, along with Associate Professor of Music Bob Ham and current First Lady Terri Cramer, personally talked him out of it. It would be the second time Bridges sold Morris on Bethel College. Bridges had originally talked him into enrolling as a freshman. The two knew each other because Morris went to Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., with Bridges’ son, Dan.

“That was a turning point,” Morris says of his decision to stay.

That decision also marked a pivotal moment in his spiritual life, as Morris began to realize the difference between church life and relationship.

“I rededicated my life back to Christ. I’d grown up in church, but at that point it went from religion to relationship.”

Later Morris would perform a musical review for his fine arts class during his junior year. He sang Showboat’s “Old Man River.” Before the show started, he’d been going through spiritual growth and remembers dedicating his voice to God that evening. He would later be told that the show stopped with applause for him after his performance. And following the concert, Bridges was the first person to congratulate him. He also wrote Morris a personal note congratulating him and thanking him for using his gifts.

“It was very heartfelt and it meant a lot to me.”

Years later, it would almost seem that Morris was able to use his gifts again, returning his gratitude to the man who guided him through parts of his college career. On Aug. 25, during Bridges’ funeral service, Morris sang, “Give Me Jesus,” a traditional spiritual arrangement by Moses Hogan. It had been a solo specifically requested by the former president for Morris to sing.

“To me, I was very humbled and very honored. He’d worked in higher education for so long, I knew he’d heard a lot of other people sing over the years.”

Those in attendance probably knew why the president would be honored to have Morris sing a solo at his service. And if Bridges could have written another letter of congrats or encouragement after that performance, I’m sure it would say, “Well done, son.”

And Morris, with a big smile, would probably have chuckled.

Listen to Morris sing “Give Me Jesus.”