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Running the Race — Finishing Strong

BY DENNIS ENGBRECHT, PH.D.
Senior Vice President

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

At the faculty retreat last week I overheard a veteran faculty member talking about Dr. Bridges to a younger faculty member who had arrived at Bethel following Norman’s retirement as president. This seasoned professor was paying tribute to the former president as I heard her say, “Norman always seemed to go the extra mile with faculty and staff who were in some sort of difficulty. He got very close to those who were experiencing problems.”

Norman Bridges and I were very close and suddenly last week I discovered why.

 I first met Dr. Bridges in 1967 when I arrived on Bethel’s campus as a new student. Norman was a 29 year-old dean of students. I was an 18 year-old freshman. His job as the dean of students was to enforce the college’s regulations for its student body, and my job as a college freshman was to challenge these regulations with great intensity. 

We both did our jobs quite well. 

During the following three years I had a number of encounters with the young dean of students, not all of which were entirely pleasant. It was several years after I had left Bethel that I experienced this sudden intuitive leap of understanding, which some would refer to as an epiphany, or as my mother would call it, the “convicting grip of the Holy Ghost.” Regardless of what you want to call it, this experience allowed me to recognize how immature I had been in my relationship with the former dean of students.

By now Norman and Janice had moved to a small town in western Kansas where he served as the president of Barclay College. I recall the difficulty of writing a letter to him apologizing for my ridiculous behavior as a student and asking for his forgiveness. For some reason I expected a response that included phrases like, “So you finally grew up!” or “What took you so long?!” But instead, I received a letter graciously extending forgiveness complete with Norman’s own admission, that he too, had recently written a letter of apology and found it to be a most refreshing experience.

Three years later when Norman heard that I had returned to Bethel in the fall of 1986 to assume the position that he once held as the dean of students, he called me with words of encouragement. “Poetic justice!” he proclaimed. “There is a God!” 

Three years later in 1989 Norman returned to his alma mater as Bethel’s fifth president, and for the next 15 years I had the privilege of serving on his administrative team. He arrived at a time when the college was facing some enormous challenges, and he attacked each of these obstacles with great vigor. Dr. Steve Cramer has already provided a long and impressive list of accomplishments that took place during Norman Bridge’s tenure as president. His administrative team was characterized by mutual trust, personal encouragement, intense camaraderie, a bit of teasing and a good deal of laughter. Those who worked with Norman recall that there were two very distinct sounds that emanated from the president’s office.

The first, a resounding, raucous laughter that was evoked when something struck his funny bone, a laughter that could be heard a long ways down the hall of the administration building; and the second sound was this loud roar when something did not meet his approval. This roar usually sounded something like … “NOOOOOO!” 

But there was a third sound that came from Norman’s office, not nearly as robust, but equally as clear as the first two. It sounded something like this, “Come on in and sit down, Dennis.” During the 15 years that I served with Dr. Bridges, I learned that this invitation to enter the inner sanctum of the president’s office usually preceded some valued, precious pearls of wisdom.

One time when one of our children was entering the early years of adolescence and I was at my wits’ end as a parent, I recall Norman’s clearly stated words of advice, “If he knows his parents love him, knows his parents love each other and knows his parents love the Lord, he’ll be just fine.” I never forgot those timely words of wisdom, along with many others he shared with me.

I especially enjoyed the administrative retreats and planning days that took us off campus to various locations. Sometimes Norman would lead us in reading Psalms to each other. Other times he’d have us go around the room laying hands on each other and lifting our administrative colleagues in prayer. And frequently we would spend extended time in prayer for faculty and staff who were facing serious illness or a family problem of some sort. Oh there was much planning, brainstorming and vision casting in these planning days off campus. But what I recall most vividly was the open and deep fellowship of a team equally committed to keeping Christ at the helm of Bethel College. Norman made sure this was at the center of every planning day.

In Isaiah 52:7 the prophet proclaims, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” In this day of information overload it is so easy for us to conclude that in order to share our faith, we must have all the answers. But God puts each one of us in a strategic corner of the world to proclaim the simple message of Isaiah 52:7. It is the message that redemption and forgiveness are available through Jesus Christ who provides reconciliation and peace between a sovereign God and sinful humanity.

God brought Norman Bridges to this corner of the world, to Bethel College, for such a time as this, to bring good news, to proclaim peace, to bring good tidings and to proclaim with clarity, “Your God reigns!” For a decade and a half, Norman Bridges carried the torch handed off to him by previous presidents, a torch committed to keep “Christ at the Helm” of Bethel College.

He ran the race well. 

He finished strong. 

He passed on a torch that still burns brightly. 

Thank you, Norman. It was a great run.