A Historical Review of Former President Norman V. Bridges, Ph.D.
BY TIMOTHY ERDEL, PH.D
Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy
Norman V. Bridges, Ph.D., guided Bethel College from a well-kept secret to national recognition during his remarkable, record-breaking presidency (1989-2004). This was Bridge’s third stint on the campus. He had graduated from Bethel with a B.A. in English Education magna cum laude in 1960, returning next to serve variously as dean of students, professor of history and education, and as vice president for administration (1966-1976). He was named Alumnus of the Year in 1975.
Bridges was born on April 2, 1938, in Wooster Corners, Mich., the son of the Reverend Guy and Nellie Bridges, and grew up as the oldest of five children in a series of parsonages. The family’s frequent moves depended upon the annual whims of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ/United Missionary Church Michigan Conference Stationing Committee. Bridges ultimately graduated from Flint Northern High School in 1956, where he won academic honors as the top male in his class and conference championships in wrestling and debate.
Bridges married Janice Stephey in 1959, while they were still students at Bethel, then taught high school in Indiana and Michigan, going on to earn an M.A. in American Studies (1966) and a Ph.D. in Higher Education (1970) from the University of Michigan. Janice graduated from Bethel in 1961 and later earned an M.S. from Friends University, becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist, and counseling in the Bethel College Wellness Center until their retirement.
Before returning to Bethel as its fifth president, Bridges gained invaluable experience during his nine years as president of what is now Barclay College in Haviland, Kan., (1976-1985) and four years as vice president for university relations and executive vice president of Friends University in Wichita, Kan. (1985-1989).
Bridges will be remembered best for his extraordinary years as president of Bethel. The annual operating budget increased from under $3 million to over $30 million. The school more than tripled in enrollment to some 1,850 students. Over 40 academic programs were added, with innovative majors such as sign language interpreting. The rising academic reputation boosted Bethel from fourth to first-tier rankings in U.S. News & World Report.
The physical landscape changed just as dramatically. Landmark building projects included Founders Village, the Davidhizar Nursing Wing, the Dining Commons addition, the Everest-Rohrer Chapel/Fine Arts Center, the Taylor Memorial Chapel, the Shiloh Prayer Chapel, the Wiekamp Athletic Center, the Sailor Residential Center, the Miller/Moore Academic Center, the Jenkins Baseball Stadium, the Morey Soccer Field and the Bethel Bookstore.
Bethel athletic teams regularly won conference and national championships, while the music and theater programs entered new eras of excellence. Chapel once more became the heart of the campus, while Bethel sent dozens of Task Force ministry teams to needy communities around the world.
For years Bridges simultaneously lent his wisdom and energetic leadership to numerous other church and civic organizations, including the Rotary Club of Wichita, the Kiowa County Hospital, the Mid-America Yearly Meeting, the Salvation Army, the South Bend Symphony, the Missionary Church, the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County, the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities and the Independent Colleges of Indiana.
Upon retiring from Bethel, Bridges was cascaded with honors, from the first Festschrift ever compiled for a Bethel academic to “Sagamore of the Wabash” by Governor Joe Kernan of Indiana to president emeritus of Bethel.
After leaving Bethel, Bridges oversaw the completion and early operation of the American Countryside Farmer’s Market in Elkhart, Ind., as well as directing valuable support to Missionary Church pastors through a major grant from Lilly Endowment.
Bridges was known for his lively wit and varied interests. He was widely read, deeply engaged in each of his many communities, a shrewd observer of human character and public affairs and, for many years, an avid athlete. As a musician, Bridges had a special fondness for the trombone, which he played as well as for choirs, men’s ensembles and hymns.
Bridges and Janice reared three sons, now married: Jonathan (a lawyer) and Debbie, of Dallas, Texas; David (a Friends senior pastor) and Rochelle (Randall, Deidre, Audra and Ashley), of Friendswood, Texas; and Daniel (a Missionary Church district executive) and Renee (Melanie and Allison), in Goshen, Ind. An M.B.A. class once asked Bridges to identify his proudest achievement. He immediately spoke of his family and their faith.