Life Remembered: Erma Bridgewater a 'quiet revolutionary' who served church, community
CHAMPAIGN — Erma Bridgewater had aimed to reach the age of 100 on Nov. 24. She wanted that congratulatory letter from President Barack Obama, said her son, Ron.
"She was determined. We all thought she would" make it, he said Tuesday morning, hours after his mother, who was 99, died at Presence Covenant Medical Center in Urbana.
A beloved figure with a bearing of quiet strength and dignity, Mrs. Bridgewater had been in good health until just last week, when she went to the emergency room and later was hospitalized.
She died around midnight Monday at the hospital, surrounded by family, including Ron, of Urbana; his brother, Cecil, a jazz trumpeter and educator who lives in Englewood, N.J.; and their sister, Cassandra "Cassie" Woolfolk of Champaign, who works at the Center for Youth and Family Solutions.
A wake will take place Friday and funeral services Saturday at Bethel AME Church, where Mrs. Bridgewater played piano and was a stalwart member.
"A pastor is not supposed to have favorite members, but she was my favorite member," Bethel AME Pastor Larry Lewis said Tuesday.
"She lived her faith every day of her life," he said. "She helped people. She encouraged people. Where this church is concerned, she was the first to arrive, whether for services, a meeting. She listened intently, and when she spoke everyone else stopped talking and listened to what she had to say. She was right on cue. Her life was about doing what was right."
Mike Ross, director of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, where Mrs. Bridgewater could be seen at jazz concerts, worked with her on the center's Jazz Threads history program several years ago. Ross said the "beautiful legend" of Mrs. Bridgewater was well-established by the time he arrived here 15 years ago.
"From the minute I first met her, I understood why," he said. "Her strength and no-nonsense outlook on life came across loudly and clearly, but so did her good nature and generosity of spirit.
"She was an extraordinary role model for all of us to look up to, and her legacy will no doubt have impact for generations to come. What a privilege it is for us to claim our community as her home."
Lewis noted that Mrs. Bridgewater was a walking historian who embodied Champaign, having lived in the city for 99 years and five months, through racial turmoil and segregation to finally see greater equality.
One of the few times she went "out front" in the civil rights movement, she said last year, was her participation in a boycott of the J.C. Penney store in Champaign because it was not hiring blacks.
Her son, Cecil, has called his mother a "quiet revolutionary." For example, in the 1960s she stopped having her hair chemically straightened. She sported her Afro until the end.
She also came to realize later in life that if she didn't say the things she felt, she would later regret it. "So I learned then to say what I wanted to say," she said. "I always stopped and thought about how it was going to land, what the attitude might be. If it was going to be too bad, I let it go."
One thing she never let go of was her love of jazz. Last week, she asked doctors to release her from the hospital to see her former daughter-in-law, Dee Dee Bridgewater, perform at Krannert Center.
Erma Scott was born into the music. Her father, Ray Scott, led the band Mac Scott and his Footwarmers, and his daughter as a teenager played piano in a teen jazz combo her father had founded.
In 1941, she married Cecil Bridgewater, who had been a trumpeter in the Navy Band. They remained married until his death 58 years later.
Mrs. Bridgewater, though, was accomplished in her own right.
After graduating in 1931 from Champaign High School, she studied sociology at the University of Illinois, where her father worked.
After graduating in 1937, she didn't want to leave town so she took a job as a maid at the Newman Center on campus, where her mother, Sarah Scott, worked at the time.
Erma Scott was not there long before she was hired as the first co-director of the Douglass Community Center — even though she knew little about recreation at the time.
"I was the director over (Works Progress Administration) workers who knew all about recreation," she said last year. "You can imagine how they felt about me, and I don't blame them.
"In time, they realized I wasn't as snobbish as they thought. One of the things I say is, 'I swallowed my degree.' I forgot I ever had it and went on from there."
Mrs. Bridgewater left Douglass Center after her three children were born, to raise them. She returned as a director, from 1955 to 1962. At the end, the Champaign Recreation Department decided it wanted a male director.
"I said, 'Fine, I'll just take care of the girls here,'" said Mrs. Bridgewater, who was made assistant director. "When payday came, I found they had reduced my salary."
She quit and went to work at the now-defunct Courier, a daily newspaper in Urbana, as a proofreader. After a year and a half, she joined the staff of the city of Champaign, working first in urban renewal and later community development. Along with urban renewal officer James L. Williams, Mrs. Bridgewater led one of the most successful relocation programs in the country.
Through the years, she received many honors, among them a "living legend" citation from Project 500, a group of 500 blacks who were recruited to attend the UI three decades after she did. In 2011, Bethel AME proclaimed one Sunday "Mrs. B. Day."
Then-Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart attended and gave Mrs. B. a key to the city.
"That was a real surprise because I had written a letter to the editor about him," she said. "I felt very humbled by it all. I fussed about it a little bit, but it was a wonderful thing."