Heather Bridgens memorial demonstrates community impact

Photo: The Bridgens Family – Principal Heather Bridgens, left, and assistant principal Emily Wren Gerot.

COTTAGE GROVE – Longtime educator, coach and athlete Heather Michele Cunningham Bridgens passed away on April 8. 

“We are so grateful to have grown up here, to be able to live and work here, to feel a part of this community and to feel so supported by so many people in Cottage Grove whose lives have touched ours,” said husband Garrett Bridgens.

The Bridgens were raised in Cottage Grove from an early age and found their lives intertwined almost from the beginning. 

Both families came to town in order to work for the South Lane School District, and were very involved in the first Presbyterian Church. They went through the same schools together: Bohemia, Lincoln and Cottage Grove High School. Though separated by a few years in school, they were very much aware of one another. 

Different life paths led them away from Cottage Grove before meeting up again in the classroom at CGHS, this time as educators.  

In 2005, the language arts and social studies classes at CGHS were “blocked” and co-taught by the teachers of those subjects. Heather, teaching English, was paired with Nathan Bridgens, Garrett’s brother. Meanwhile, Garrett had come back home from working in New Hampshire. He had decided to follow the family tradition in education, and was pursuing his teaching license. As a substitute, Garrett would, on occasion, cover his brother’s classes, incidentally getting reacquainted with Heather. 

“Eventually I got my nerve up and asked her out,” Garrett said. Much to his heart’s content, she said “yes.”

Garrett recalls that their courtship was at a very crazy time in both of their lives. He had begun teaching full-time at the high school on an emergency license, was completing his teaching requirements, and coaching football, basketball and track. Heather was serving as the English department head, teaching full time, coaching the swim and water polo teams, in addition to working to complete her administrative credentials.

Despite its intensity, this was a very special time for both of them and it felt really great, being able to be working at the high school together.

At their 2007 wedding, the fact that they were locals was very apparent. Following a tender reading of one of Heather’s favorite poems, E. E. Cummings’ “[i carry your heart with me (i carry it in],” by one of Heather’s swimmers. Immediately following, a friend of Garrett’s compared and contrasted the Cummings poem with a humorous off-hand take on “What it means to be a Grover.” 

It was a merry pairing that reminded all present that, yes, this was a beautiful union of two locals and an acknowledgement that the Grove is home – not just to the couple – but to all who make up this special and unique place.

If one word had to be chosen to describe what made Heather tick, it would probably be “kindness.” This word was emblazoned on the large sign which hung in her principal’s office at Bohemia School, where she served as principal since 2014. It was the first thing seen by all who entered there and was the core of her practice as an educator. 

She poured kindness on her students, family, friends, strangers and above all else, her beloved children. It is seen with the “Choose Kindness” sign displayed in her yard. 

It was shown by sitting with a student having a bad day and helping them to ground again by her words, presence – or maybe through one of the kindness critters she always had at the school, which served as furry ambassadors to help connect to kids.

Another descriptor would have to be “competitive.” But rather than trying to beat someone else it was more about pushing herself to be better, more effective, faster, and yes, kinder. That is why she gravitated toward swimming. As a SLSD student, she was on the swim and water polo teams, later coaching both teams as an educator.

For Heather, it wasn’t so much as going against another swimmer, it was about trying to beat her last time. She was her own main opponent. 

“She loved being in the water, feeling it flow over her body, the feeling of being weightless,” said her mother, Judy Cunningham. Being a gifted and competitive swimmer led her to being an outstanding coach at CGHS, leading the boys swim team to two state championships, the girls team to a third place finish at State, and twice-chosen state coach of the year.

Swim coach Bud Taylor, a legend in his own right, knew Heather on multiple levels. He coached her in high school, recruited her as an adult, to chair the board of directors of the Aqualions, and saw her coach his grandson into a state champion. 

“I have coached hundreds and hundreds of kids and she was just a cut above, as good as it gets,” Taylor said, running out of superlatives in trying to describe her.

He described her work ethic as tremendous, even in one of his highest performing teams ever, she was above-and-beyond. 

“But she was sincerely, really, really humble. She always sought to learn, was honest, fair, kind, encouraged other kids, wasn’t jealous, thought of the team overall, really did it all,” Taylor said. “I recruited her to the Aqualions because of those qualities. Of course, she was a really good administrator, so everything really ran well and she checked up to make sure it did.”

Taylor got to see Heather coach his grandson, Zachary. Zach’s mother, Romney Shiffer-Taylor, echoed many of the same feelings about her experience with Heather but from a parent’s point of view.

“She was far more interested in the whole student, not just the sport and was very supportive of us parents, too,” said Shiffer-Taylor. “The year Zachary’s team won state, it was because they really wanted it. She guided and helped them to get there, but they won it for themselves as much as for her. Heather was one of Zachary’s favorite teachers and she invited him to join the team in her class. She didn’t care about athletic abilities, she just encouraged and supported him into becoming a really good swimmer.” 

With 50- and 100-yard freestyle state wins, I’d say Zachary did OK by Coach Bridgens.

Having grown up in Ducks country and completing her masters of education and administration at the University of Oregon, it was natural that Heather was a huge Ducks fan. But then again, she was a sports fan in general. Garrett reports the TV was always on ESPN and that she enjoyed watching all kinds of sports. When Covid shut down most scheduled games she found a new and novel sports interest, UFC – fighting championships. Watching at first out of necessity, due to a dearth in programming, she gradually got into it, becoming a fan.

As an English teacher for 15 years, it is not all that surprising that Heather was an avid and voracious reader. That started just as soon as she learned how to read, and according to her mother, she always had a book with her. She would plow through what they were reading in class and had permission to discreetly have another book in her lap that she read while the rest of the class struggled along on the required reading. 

“Our honeymoon was spent with me, Heather and Harry Potter,” Garrett said. Certainly, Heather’s heavy suitcase bulged with books laid in for that trip.

She read everything, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and of course, devoured a vast quantity of books in the field of education to keep at the forefront of her chosen craft. She welcomed getting books as gifts, and loved going to bookstores. It was a special treat to get to handle and touch the books before purchasing them. She never missed a chance to stop at a bookstore.

Putting words together also came naturally to Heather. She wrote beautiful stories, poems and journals, and excelled in pulling the writer out of her students.

Despite the many responsibilities of running a school, Heather carved out the time to give her kids her full attention and love. Fiercely proud of them and their accomplishments, she possessed a remarkable skill of balancing the different aspects of her life. Even with all the time and energy towards family and school, she found ways and time to cultivate deep and lasting friendships. Sometimes that required things like convincing the local crossfit gym to open up at 5 a.m. so Heather and friends could squeeze in a workout before school.

Heather’s time to work directly with students has ended, but with her remarkable talent to relate and connect, she wanted to continue to still touch student lives in the SLSD. 

“This is her life’s work that she helped plan and was how she wanted to give back to her community. The Heather Cunningham Bridgens Endowment is how she and we can continue to have an impact on this community,” Garrett said. The goal is to raise enough money to make playing sports free for SLSD students each year. Donations are tax-deductible. 

A community open house to honor Heather will take place on Friday, May 6, from 2 – 6 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Cottage Grove. A spot in the church memorial garden has been designated for Heather and will feature a beautiful redwood bench surrounded by Heather’s favorite flowers. 

The memorial garden is located next to the SLSD District Office, making it the perfect place to come, sit, and remember Heather and her contributions to education and the community. 

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