March 22, 2018

Remembering Henry Bridges, Jr.

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For nearly 50 years, Community School of the Arts has been a provider of arts experiences for children and adults of all backgrounds, committed to bringing transformative visual art and music education to communities across the Charlotte region. Our simple yet ambitious mission is the product of one man, founder Henry Bridges, who saw a void in the Charlotte community and sought to fill it. Since 1969, when Henry Bridges began teaching piano lessons to underserved children in his surrounding church community, Henry’s vision — fulfilled through the School’s mission — touched and shaped the lives of many in our community. With the passing of Mr. Bridges on March 20, 2018, Charlotte loses a visionary, philanthropist and arts advocate. In a 1982 Charlotte Observer article, Henry stated “as long as one is alive, one is becoming,” and it is in that essence that we celebrate his life and invite all to join us as we remember Henry’s impact on the lives of CSA families and the Charlotte community.

Henry at an art exhibition
Henry with students at First Pres

Henry’s small program, known originally as The First Presbyterian School of Music, quickly shifted and expanded in the early 1970s — moving away from the audition format in 1970 to the first-come, first-served placement process that CSA uses today — officially becoming Community School of the Arts in 1971 to reflect changes including lessons in all band and orchestra instruments as well as visual and performing arts. While the School maintained its headquarters at First Presbyterian Church until the 1990s, much of CSA’s initial success can be attributed to the community partnerships maintained by Henry, which allowed CSA to provide lessons to students at more than 50 locations throughout Charlotte. As part of the community school movement started in the 1960s, CSA utilized the strength of existing organizations to benefit CSA and the Charlotte arts community. While Henry served as Executive Director, he led the School to expand its outreach lessons to nearby schools, centers, and the former Piedmont Courts housing community and experimented with trends in private instruction. If outreach is at the heart of CSA, then its driving soul is the Charlotte community.

Those of us who got to work alongside him are better leaders, community members, and people because of him. - Kathy Ridge, Former CSA Executive Director

Though he retired as Executive Director in 1982, Henry continued to be a faculty member in the years to come, teaching on his personal grand piano five days a week to students of all ages at Piedmont Courts until the 1990s. Throughout the years, he brought back past students from the program to become teachers in their former neighborhood. One of the students in the program, Kenneth Williams, recently said of Henry: “He was a guardian angel who took care of me and all the kids in the program. To this day, I have not been able to repay him for the tremendous impact that he has had on my life. However, I was able to step in and teach the younger students in the Piedmont Courts program when he needed a day off.” Henry’s original vision inspired our community to give to CSA, investing not only in the School’s financial aid and scholarship programs, but, more importantly, in the young and aspiring artists who live in our community. As the School has grown over the decades as a cultural factor in the progress of Charlotte, Henry’s infectious dream — to develop and sustain the creative talent in all students — has garnered support from community leaders across the state and region, allowing it to become the place that it is today.

In 1997, CSA appointed Henry as its first Lifetime Board member in recognition of his dedication and unending contributions to the School. Throughout his time on the board, Henry maintained engagement with the School and offered continuous support and guidance over the years, allowing CSA to grow and shift as needed. CSA is humbled to carry out Henry’s vision to serve our region’s arts students and will continue to honor his legacy of service and “becoming” as we look to our future of providing accessible arts education to the community. From CSA President & Executive Director Devlin McNeil: “This is a bittersweet time for CSA. As we prepare to celebrate the School’s 50th anniversary, Henry’s passing marks the end of a life that was dedicated to building the organization from 20 students into what it is today. Because of Henry, we are grateful to look ahead to our next 50 years and will celebrate his inspiring vision every step of the way.”

Click here to read the article from the Charlotte Observer about Henry's life.

Click here to read Henry's obituary in the Charlotte Observer.