His church had 15 idle pianos. So he started a music school for poor kids.

His church had 15 idle pianos. So he started a music school for poor kids.
(The Charlotte Observer file photo)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - In 1969, the year a federal judge ruled that Charlotte's schools were illegally segregated, the white organist and choir director of First Presbyterian Church had 15 pianos in the basement that sat unused most of time.

Henry Bridges also noticed that the poor, mostly African American kids who lived around the uptown church needed something to do. So he invited them in and started to teach them piano.

So began the Community School of the Arts. Bridges recruited four of the best piano teachers in Charlotte — one of them, Dzidra Reimanis, 90, still teaches there — and winnowed an initial 20 students from more than 150 applicants. The children were taught five days a week in piano, choir and music theory. All of it was free.

Henry Percival Bridges died Tuesday, at 90, at his home. He had retired from teaching in 1992 but remained a director of the school. He and his late wife Daisy were also active in several other Charlotte arts organizations.

"He attracted the top talent, the best of the best," to teach at the school, said Devlin McNeil, the school's current president and executive director.

Over the years, the school expanded to tuition-based programs for families who could afford lessons. It continued free and discounted programs for those who couldn't. The school now has a faculty of over 70 who serve more than 4,500 students a year.

With his flowing gray hair, old car and well-worn clothes, Bridges gave no clue that he came from a wealthy family, said the Rev. William Wood, the former First Presbyterian Church minister who grew up with him in Johnson City, Tennessee.

"He was so gentle and kind," Wood said, recalling that a church secretary once mistook Bridges for a homeless person. "He heard different music in his head."

His father had wanted him to become a Presbyterian minister, Wood said. Bridges instead attended Davidson College and earned a master's degree in sacred music from Union Theological Seminary after deciding music was his calling. With his work at the Community School of the Arts, Wood said, Bridges found another ministry to children.

"He always had a heart for the underprivileged," Wood said. "He got that from his mother. As a boy, (poor) people would come to the door of their fine house and she would give them sandwiches. He had a real passion for helping children and helping people."

Bridges stepped down as executive director of the Community School of the Arts in 1982, but hauled his own piano to the Piedmont Courts public housing project and became a full-time — but still free — teacher there for another 10 years

The school moved in 1998 from First Presbyterian Church to Spirit Square. Over time, it added classes in dance and theater but now concentrates on private and group music lessons, visual arts, summer camps and early-childhood education and extensive community outreach. It still teaches widely in low-income neighborhoods and offers financial aid to students, "honoring its founding mission and the belief that outstanding arts education should be available to all," according to the school's website.

Kathy Ridge, who served as the school's executive director from 2003 to 2007, said Bridges was at first skeptical that a former banker with no musical or arts administration experience would be a good fit. But she also recalls being transfixed by their first conversation, in which he talked about his aspirations for the school.

Despite his casual attire — she said he nattily dressed for special occasions and owned a yellow Thunderbird convertible — Ridge said, Bridges had "gorgeous, twinkling eyes" and a charm that could make listeners feel like they were the only people in a crowded room.

"He captivated me right then with his mission," Ridge said. "He was convinced that it changed the life trajectories for kids who couldn't otherwise take music lessons."

In retirement, according to a Observer article, Bridges rose early each day, bought and sold stocks, and spent hours practicing his organ or piano.

"Religion, the arts and education are all central to life," he told an interviewer in 1989. "They are really three facets of the same thing. You don't go to a museum without having some kind of transcendental experience. The same can be said of dance, music and theater — they're all interrelated. Central to the core of the universe are a belief in God, creativity and consciousness. That's what the arts are all about. "