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A Mighty Oak of Influence

BY STEVEN R. CRAMER, PH.D.
President

Remarks made during Norman V. Bridges’ Funeral Service on August, 25, 2010.

As you walk the Bethel campus you cannot help but appreciate the grandeur of the large towering oak trees that bless its grounds. They provide shade, shelter, inspiration and acorns for a new generation of oaks.

Like those oak trees, Bethel has also been blessed by the presence of those whose lives became towering oaks of influence. We miss their shade when one of them falls, but we know we will be blessed in the future by the acorns they have produced.

Such is the case with the passing of my colleague, mentor and friend — Dr. Norman Bridges.

Presidential Leadership

A study done in the 1990s of successful Christian colleges found that strong presidential leadership was central to those institution’s resurgence and transformation. Their presidents had fostered an unwavering focus on mission coupled with vision and a compelling sense of purpose. Those presidents were strong, caring, action-oriented visionaries. They understood that they held a sacred trust and that they must focus institutional attention on God’s design and desires for its future. 

That study could well have been describing the man whose life we celebrate today. The man God chose to “stand in the gap” at Bethel College from 1989 –2004 — Dr. Norman V. Bridges. 

Having worked with Dr. Bridges for the entire 15 years of his presidency, I can give testimony to the fact that he was all of the things just listed and more. Bethel College has benefited greatly from this “giant” of a leader — “One of Bethel’s mighty oaks.”

You do not have to look far to find the unmistakable fingerprints of Dr. Norman Bridges’ leadership at this institution. During his tenure, Bethel’s enrollment tripled and more than $30 million was invested in the campus as 15 buildings were either constructed, expanded or refurbished.

In fact, the building we are holding his memorial service in today began as a rough sketch on a piece of graph paper in Norman’s office.

During his 15 years at Bethel’s helm the number, quality and reputation of Bethel’s faculty and programs grew dramatically as the college moved from the fourth to first tier in several national rankings.

  1. Athletically, during his tenure there were 19 national championships won in eight different sports. 
  2. The music and drama programs gained increased national recognition and countless overseas and cross-cultural opportunities for service and study were launched. 
  3. The church and the community at-large became much more aware of Bethel and appreciative of its influence.   

And as all this was being accomplished, Norman continued to ensure Bethel College would continue to seek to be a spiritually vibrant institution.

Personal Care for Others

But equally as impressive are the things that both he and Janice have done for others of which most people are seldom aware.

There is the loyalty that they would exhibit while counseling and encouraging the hearts of many who were hurting; the care and concern shown as they stood by those in need, whether with finances, family difficulties or personal illness and loss.

You always were assured that once you had established a trust relationship with them they would be devotedly loyal.

Personal Traits

And Norman Bridges was genuinely humble, quick to deflect praise and give credit to others. It was always “we,” never “I.” It was always a “team” effort, even though we all knew he was the smartest most insightful person in the room!

Norman had a quick, dry wit and could win almost any debate he chose to. He was widely read and could converse with ease on most subjects from science and theology to politics and poetry.

I was continually amazed at how he could go to a banquet — where he was to be the main speaker —  and not know what he was going to say until he wrote down some notes on a napkin or envelope during dinner. He would then get up and proceed to enthrall the crowd with a witty, humorous and profound speech — a speech that hadn’t even been written 15 minutes before.

Norman could also be demanding when he needed to be, particularly when something did not meet the standard of quality and excellence he had set for the institution. This trait made us all better and in turn raised the quality of the educational experience provided to Bethel students.

Dr. Bridges could also be a bit ornery. From time to time he would leave his door open and yell at someone in his office or hallway — just for the effect. He once told me that he knew it would shake people up a bit. I think he did it so they would leave him alone for a while. Then he could get something done.

His wit and humor are legendary.

One day he stopped by my office during a difficult time financially for the college. We were in a campaign and needed a shot in the arm with a sizable gift. I think my secretary came in with a letter announcing a sizable estate bequest — Norman got that gleam in his eye and said, “See Steve, I told you, where there’s death there’s hope!”

And you know he was right. Today Norman is more aware than any of us here that where there is death, there is hope — in Christ.

In Closing

I will miss my friend and mentor, Norman Bridges, for I learned much from him.

Thank you, Janice, David and Rochelle, Jonathon and Debbie, Dan and Renee, and grandchildren for sharing your husband, father and grandfather’s life with the Bethel College family.

All who love Bethel will be forever grateful for Norman Bridges’ faithful obedience in answering God’s call by standing in gap, and leading Bethel College to become “the miracle on McKinley.”

On behalf of the entire Bethel family, I want to say thank you, Norman, and “to God be the glory!”