Some academics are endured, some are neither here nor there, some are liked, and some are revered. Prof. Jon Bridgman has passed away. He was one of the most revered professors in the history of the University of Washington, and I had the privilege of majoring in history during his lengthy tenure.
UW hired young Prof. Bridgman in 1961, near the end of his grad studies at Stanford. He joined the Department of History, with a focus on modern European (especially German) history. He retired in 1997. I had the good fortune to attend UW and major in history during Bridgman’s his early fifties, when he was very well established as one of the three or four professors whose class one must take if one were to get the very best out of UW.
In those days, the Daily (campus newspaper) always published a welcome issue for incoming freshmen: best things to do, best professors, best places to eat, everything worth experiencing. It may have been the very most useful issue of each year, the one that a freshman might save for months. Each year, high on the list of professors and classes to take was the introductory Western Civilization History survey series, HST 111 (ancient), 112 (medieval), and modern (113). Bridgman was the reason, and these classes were held in the enormous lecture halls of Kane. Kane 130 seated 764.
Please absorb that for a moment. That’s a lot of people. That’s a substantial movie theater complete with balcony and two lecterns. That requires TAs to teach nearly two dozen quiz sections (on Friday, class was held in a normal room and led by a grad student). All about history. If you have any affection for the subject at all, the prospect is magical in concept, but I assure you I am not exaggerating.
My own early days at UW were inauspicious. Like so many students, I entered higher education on a late September Monday morning by walking into an 8:30 class in Kane 130. I looked around at a classroom that seated more students than even resided in the town I had come from, and the shock set in.
From a graduating class of eleven, in a high school of roughly fifty, in a town of about 750, to a freshman class of thousands at a university of 35,000 in a city of two million. I was seventeen, and immature even for my age, and I was finally meeting my match. This is the jolt: while I wasn’t always happy about the distinction, as it caused me no end of torment, in every class I’d been in from K-12, it had been an article of faith (and unfairly, I think, in many cases) that I was the most gifted kid in the class, maybe the school. It sank in: Guess what, kid: so were all 763 other people in here. Pack your lunch. You aren’t the most gifted student, the most gifted freshman, the most gifted in this classroom, nor even the most gifted of the fifty-two other souls living on 8th Floor North, McMahon Hall.
In fact, I wasn’t even the most gifted student in the cluster holding rooms 801, 803, 805, and 807. I wasn’t even the most gifted student in room 805; my roommate was taking the notoriously terrifying Honors calculus series, MATH 134. Most people took MATH 124 and found it involved enough; the Daily had warned us about MATH 134. Matthew, a very patient and well-prepared young man from West Seattle, didn’t think it was that hard. Meanwhile, I was floundering in pre-calc, which I had to take twice. The lesson of intellectual humility, the ability to see that there were always people brighter than me, and that intellectual gifts did not extend to every field, was the great lesson of my educational shock treatment. I have a dear friend whose typing is peppered with disaster, but at all things in the natural world, she is a genius. I have a wife whom I cannot cure of em dashes and ellipses in writing, but has the magical gift of knowing how to handle all people. My father was a dogmatic idiot when it came to theology, but with computers, mathematics, mechanics, and electronics, he simply understood them in a Spocklike fashion.
In my second quarter, I’d heard enough, and I took Bridgman’s HST 112 medieval survey. This time it was in a smaller Kane lecture hall, but there were still nearly 400 students. I was hooked. My TA, who is now a professor and author, was also the undergrad advisor, and I changed majors. Prof. Bridgman had a great deal to do with that. Until I’d taken quite a few other large lecture classes, I didn’t realize how truly great his method was.
To begin with, Bridgman had a unique voice and diction. To watch him without sound, one might have thought him very nervous and excitable. He would pace back and forth, rubbing his goatee, speaking all the while, then stop and face the audience to punctuate a point with hand gestures. I dug up a Youtube of one of his lectures from 2012, because there is no way to describe his voice. In this video, he sounds much as I remember him, but it seems he became more physically sedate as time advanced. Give him a listen, if you wish:
In this video, he seems to have a mild case of Tourette’s, which was not in evidence in the 1980s. It manifests as what sounds like bursts of laughter or surprise. I don’t know the story there, but we can see that it didn’t detract from the audience’s rapt attention. Imagine him without those small and rare bursts, but moving between two podiums, scrawling notes on the transparency now and then, making animated gestures. Now, at roughly the age he was when I first took his class, I understand what it was. It was his love of history, of teaching, of sharing his knowledge, of presenting the subject so freshly that the class would vary a bit from year to year. Jon Bridgman did not recycle notes or lectures. A very humble and pleasant man, he said that this was because he could not read his own handwriting on older paperwork.
I only had one personal contact with him, and it had to do with my final grade (I’d rather not say what it was, but it was nothing to be proud of…I had not yet learned to learn, nor had I grown up, and I underachieved). I did it wrong. My transcript came out, and I had received a 0.0. I knew that had to be a mistake. This was in college before e-mail, before the web, and before mobile phones. I happened to encounter him near the HUB lawn, and approached him there. (As you can see, I didn’t have the maturity to realize that I ought to have gone to his office hours.) I was in my ROTC uniform, and I explained the situation. Despite my poor timing, Prof. Bridgman put up with me. “What grade did you expect?” he asked. I told him. “All right. Here is what to do. Please write a note and slip it under my office door, with your name and student ID number and class, and say that the grade should be that.” That simple. And that’s what I got. I never saw him anything but cheerful, and well he might be, considering the place he held in the hearts of the UW community.
One day, as Prof. Bridgman was motoring back and forth between lecterns, he stopped at the left-side one and wrote with the water-soluble marker. Words appeared on the screen. He cranked the roller; the words did not move. He turned it a bit more, then his voice lowered from its usual projected volume as he faced the class: “Good heavens. There’s been a terrible mistake. I’ve written on the glass.” Glancing about in minor embarrassment, like a child caught doing something mildly naughty, he muttered, “Oh, well…” and went to the other lectern, where the transparency wasn’t at the end of the roll.
I recall the day he was teaching the Reformation and events leading up to it. He explained that a key point of theology was the question of what constituted Christian baptism. Looking at the Bible itself, Bridgman explained with a smile, nothing contained therein said that baptism had to come from the Roman Catholic Church. “In fact,” he said, “I could stand here with a hose, read all your names, say ‘I baptize thee…’ and baptize you all. And there’d be nothing you could do about it! You can’t refuse baptism!” The class laughed. Then, in a smaller but puckish voice: “And I just might do that sometime, too.” His sense of humor punctuated all his teaching.
Prof. Bridgman was the one who taught me, in HST 113 (modern), why Orwell’s 1984 was such an important book. In HST 111, he taught me to appreciate the ancient Greek advances in government and philosophy, as well as the Roman sense of gravitas that governed actions of state under the Republic. When one day I stood upon the Akropolis, gazing down upon the Pnyx, where once was said: “Who would speak?” and the voice came, “I, Pericles,” I thought of Professor Bridgman’s voice explaining the importance of Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides’ account. I thought of him when I gazed upon the helmet of Miltiades, hero of Marathon, at the museum near Olympia. I listened to his 1939 lecture in the background while composing this, just for the pleasure of the memories his voice brings.
One of his most important books had a key purpose. There remain those who, in spite of all the compelling evidence, continue to attempt to deny or minimize the Holocaust. That is a felony in Germany and Austria; in the United States, it’s simple foolishness. Prof. Bridgman decided to demolish Holocaust denial, and thus wrote The End of the Holocaust: The Liberation of the Camps. An expert in the field, who could not be thought to have any inherent bias, and a job very well done.
When Prof. Bridgman retired, he met with resistance to the concept. Alumni took up collections for two purposes: to endow a Jon Bridgman Professorship in history at UW, and to sponsor a lecture series inviting him to come and lecture as he might desire, on any topic that he might choose. The video presented was from that series, which remained a success and lasted until at least 2012, as you can see. If only I had lived nearer Seattle, I would have attended every one.
Though he was elderly, and his passing was thus not a tremendous surprise, it still affects so many of us. All of us associated with UW will miss him, but those of us whose lives he touched will remember him when we are his age and beyond. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and personal friends.
As for me, simply, thank you, Professor Bridgman. I didn’t know how much I could love the study of history until you showed me.