For those that know him, his very name brings forth memories, stories, and a general gratitude to this truly unique professor of history. You would think that from such a memorable figure, it would be easy to explain him and his appeal to such a varied body of admirers. But you would be wrong. Professor Bridgman defies explanation and yet I will try to provide a modest attempt to describe this great teacher.
Years after I left college, I was looking through an alumni booklet sent to me by the University of Washington. As I browsed through the endless requests for money, advertisements, and articles from a place I can only relive through memory, something jumped out at me. It was a picture of my favorite professor in such a startling stereotypical pose that I had to stop in shock. This simple picture so perfectly captured the essence that is Professor Bridgman that it is the perfect starting point for this explanation. It was a pure moment where a photograph exactly reflects the mental picture you have of someone. I knew I had to cut the picture out and write this article out of the respect I have for him.
I was not a history buff in college. As a technical communication major, the only reason I even considered taking a history class was because I needed the elective and I was convinced by a good friend that Professor Bridgman’s class is one that I would never forget. On reputation and word of mouth alone, I signed up for what I thought would be a sleeper class. How far from the truth was the result.
I showed up the first day to the auditorium, early as usual, and chose a seat in the middle of the cavernous lecture hall. Watching the normal slovenly clothed students mill in with headphones, hats on backward, and with sleepy looks in their eyes, I knew most of them had just awoken to their first class of the day at 0900. The lecture hall held several hundred students and it looked like it was going to be a full house, a fact I noted as strange for an history class so early in the college day where anything before noon is “crazy early.”.
From the side door, a small man was trying to get around a couple of students in a hurried fashion. With an armful of books, his glasses in the other hand, and his head down, he seemed preoccupied in a world all his own. He seemed only to want to get to the lectern where he hurriedly organized the loose leaf sheets of paper while ignoring the general buzz that is so much a part of the pre-class air.
Standing there, I tried to size the man up. Standing only about 5’5”, he reminded me of Ray Walston, the actor who played Uncle Martin in My Favorite Martian. With a white goatee that he shared with his students as the fad of the day, it somehow afforded him a distinguished look. He wore a white shirt, conservative tie, and a sport jacket that could not have cost more than a couple of dozen dollars when he bought it a decade ago. In short, he looked like a lovable little professor in stark contrast what the modern college student had evolved into. I thought to myself that either they would eat him alive or he would have to be a Nazi to get and keep control of such a large group of authority-hating teens.
Precisely at 0900, Professor Bridgman looked at his watch began his lecture. He gave no warning, no pleas to sit or be quiet. He simply started and ignored the inevitable train of students flowing in the doors without as much as a concerned look that they were arriving late.
I think you could almost label Professor Bridgman as having Turret’s Syndrome. He would speak very fast and then suddenly stop his pace, hesitate in mid-thought, and then continue with an explosion of sound, as though the dam of thought had built up and gushed forth suddenly. Additionally, he would convulse a little, blinking his eyes hard, adding unintentional emphasis to what he was saying. Depending on when you looked at him, it was a 50/50 chance he would have his glasses on. He would put them on, as to read his notes, and then suddenly jerk them off his face without even getting to what he had written. This happened repeatedly to the point that you wondered why he even had glasses in the first place. What resulted was at first odd and evoked a nervous laugh from the students. He seemed, well, a bit nuts. But what it also accomplished is an attention-getting idiosyncrasy that quickly endeared the class to this peculiar professor.
Another part of his delivery that raised eyebrows was a result of his aforementioned rate of speech. You had to pay attention if you wanted to keep up and sometimes, he would even outpace himself. The result would be a series of “uh..uh..uh” machine-gun utterances that kept the pace while his nimble mind reset itself. Sometimes, these events would last for quite a few seconds, resulting in smiles across the room. But they were not out of ridicule but from true entertainment.
You see, the most important part of Professor Bridgman’s delivery and the very reason why his strange verbal habits entertained us so much was a result of his pure passion for what he was saying. He did not simply lecture to us, recalling facts and dates that so bores students of history. What he accomplished was the art of creating an environment and projecting his passion for the subject to those listening. He captured not only the attention but the imagination of everyone in the room and when the bell rang, the hour seemed to have flown by as it does when watching a great movie. He knew the subject matter so well that the students knew he was speaking from his personal knowledge base rather than notes. It almost seemed as though he had lived through the periods he spoke of and some thought in some supernatural way that he may have.
As far as discipline in his class, there was never a need. He held the attention of his students in a firm grip of interest rather than intimidation. Another interesting part of his class was the variety of students that came to watch his performances. In the front row were always elderly gentlemen who probably came to relive the history that they were a part of. Behind them you could see the most serious history student sitting next to someone with a pink mohawk; both of them equally enjoying what Professor Bridgman had to offer. His sheer magnetism and exuberance were enough to keep hordes of young students enthralled for an entire semester.
Professor Bridgman always brought notes. He never used them, but he always brought them. Hand-scribbled on loose leaf sheets of white paper, Professor Bridgman hated computers. His office was a cluttered mess of books and paper. He claimed to be the only person in the University to still use the card catalogue on the third floor of the library that most had abandoned when the online search engine made finding books much easier. Never a truer Ludite ever existed but this only added to his legend.
Going back to the picture above, you can see this force in action. Look at the pose Professor Bridgman makes as he tries to show physically what he feels about the point he is making. More importantly, look at the students. They are all smiling and it is evident that whatever point the Professor is making, they are under his spell. This is exactly the feeling I had every day while sitting in those very same seats. After that first class, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.
I only took one class from Professor Bridgman but it is the most memorable class I ever took and the one I most vividly remember from the four years I spent at the University of Washington. God bless you, Professor Bridgman and I know I speak for thousands of students who benefited from your efforts.