Melissa Merli: Difficult to sum up some folks in just a few words

Melissa Merli: Difficult to sum up some folks in just a few words

How do you sum up a person like Erma Bridgewater or a young artist like Quinn Koeneman in a short newspaper story?

It seems nearly impossible to record for posterity all the facts, all the nuances, all the feelings. Though I try.

At the Aug. 9 city of Champaign's dedication of the Honorary Erma Bridgewater Way at Fourth and Washington streets, I heard so many things I didn't have the space to report.

For example, Jenny Putman told me she had just arrived from Honolulu in 1972 when she first met Mrs. Bridgewater, who picked her up outside her apartment building to take her to the Frances Nelson Health Center, where Mrs. Bridgewater was the outreach coordinator.

"When I got out of my apartment building I left the door open," Putman said. "She told me, 'You march right up there and shut the door. You're not going to heat the entire outdoors.'"

Just one example of how Mrs. Bridgewater always tried to do what was right.

Her son, Cecil, said that his mother never had to be asked to do the right thing, and she never felt she had to take the credit for doing it.

Also at the dedication, Nathaniel Banks said no one seems ever to mention the fact that Mrs. Bridgewater, who sang in the Bethel AME choir for 70 years, was a fine soloist. He said as a kid he always enjoyed hearing her sing.

A great lover of music, particularly jazz, Mrs. Bridgewater also played piano at the church and in jazz groups when younger. Banks said Mo' Betta Music, a program he founded with Robert Lewis and Ron Bridgewater, was Mrs. Bridgewater's idea. No doubt.

It's a great program for youths to learn and perform jazz and other music. Mrs. Bridgewater always encouraged youths including her children and grandchildren in their artistic pursuits. Both Cecil and Ron became professional jazz musicians who early in their careers played with the greats in New York City.

"I'm always proud when I hear the name Bridgewater when I'm away from Champaign," Mayor Don Gerard said during the street dedication.


Another person mentioned he had talked with Mrs. Bridgewater about her early days, including as a student at the University of Illinois. She graduated in 1937 with a degree in sociology and psychology.

At the time there were not many female — let alone black female — students at the university. The man said what Mrs. Bridgewater told him about the prejudice she encountered back then would pin anyone's ears back.

But throughout her life Mrs. Bridgewater maintained a quiet dignity and strength that I always admired — and that commanded respect.

At the dedication, I heard a young reporter ask Cecil Bridgewater about his mother. The reporter would go on in his radio report to call her a civil rights icon; that didn't seem exactly right to me. She was more than that.

"Just about everything she did brought the community together," Cecil said.

Cecil, who lives in New Jersey, told the reporter that he was impressed during Champaign-Urbana Days at Douglass Park by the number of people who would come up to his mother and tell her about how much she had helped guide them at Douglass Center, where she was director and assistant director for many years.

One of the many things she did while there, Barbara Ware told me, was to form the first female Negro softball team.

"She had a lot to do with raising Champaign-Urbana," Cecil said.

Mrs. Bridgewater, who died on April 2 at age 99, also had worked as an urban renewal relocation officer and housing specialist for the city of Champaign — two positions guaranteed to make enemies. But people loved her.

Mrs. Bridgewater also served on various boards and committees, mainly related to housing, education and family. Fortunately, she received many honors while alive.

She's one of those local people, like musician Dan Perrino, who will never be forgotten.


I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to the Indi Go Artist Co-op earlier this month to talk with Quinn Koeneman about his work there. I left feeling quite moved, to the point where I nearly cried.

How could a 19-year-old come up with "Almost/L'Amour," a piece about the vagaries of love, the struggle to find it, the hurt over its loss?

Having been a misfit myself, I also related to his large banner over the stairway reading, at the beginning: "Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits," etc. In it he told of crying when he was in third grade because he had no friends, and of being told, when he was in fifth grade, by a doctor that he was wired differently.

Quinn was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication.

You can't tell now. Quinn is a pleasant young man who seems to have no problem communicating with others. He said he's put a lot of effort into figuring out how normal people think.

He also told me a lot of his art comes from having Asperger's. Maybe that's why it's so touching: the fact that it has to do with the spaces between people and communicating with others, when he had so much difficulty doing that when younger.

He's high-functioning now and acknowledges he hides his Asperger's well.

He seems also to have found his niche at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Someone told me that if you take all of the weird kids that didn't fit the puzzle at their high school and put them in one school, it would be the School of the Art Institute of Chicago," he said.


You might have read last week that Eclectic, an artist co-op in downtown Urbana, has had financial difficulties, including partially because of the recent streetscaping work there.

In a mass email, Eclectic director-owner Susan Pryde said her $10 Original Art Sale was a success, with 140 pieces sold during the five-day sale.

"That's nearly twice the number of items that we sold in 2012 and speaks very highly of the quality of the pieces we feature and of the value of spreading the word about Eclectic through social media and best of all — word of mouth!" she wrote.

She also mentioned the upcoming fundraiser "Keep Creativity Alive — Save Eclectic," from 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 27 at nearby Crane Alley, 115 W. Main St., U.

More on that later.

What She Said

Tickets were nearly sold out in a few days to "That's What She Said," a show designed by three Champaign women, taking place Oct. 5 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

"We have great news. We were able to figure out a way to cut our stage in half so we could add a few more rows of seats," wrote one of the three, Kerry Rossow. "And ... they will be front-row seats! You will be so close that you might be able to see the boogers in Kerry Rossow's nose."

There are only a few rows of these seats, though. To buy a ticket, go to

In the show seven women will talk about their lives. For more on "That's What She Said," go to


The Urban Dictionary now includes the word "swoopie," "coined by the eminent wildlife photographer Alex Wild (of Urbana) to describe the flight pattern of a certain species of firefly (or lightning bug, a beetle from the family Lampyridae), particularly when such flight is captured on a composite stack of photographic images."

If you didn't see my recent story on Wild, go to

New gig

Christina McClelland, public arts coordinator for the city of Urbana, will start her new job Sept. 9 as public arts program coordinator for the city and county of Denver.

"It's exciting but definitely bittersweet for me," she said last week. "I so enjoyed working for the city of Urbana."

She will leave at the end of this month to relocate to Colorado.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (2):Art, People

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