Mercer Truett Bridges (AUGUSTA, Ga.)

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Late in the evening of February 17, 2010, Dr. Mercer Truett Bridges died peacefully in his sleep. He was 89 years old, and had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for a decade. Mercer was born at home in Brinson, Georgia on November 6, 1920, to Lillie Maddox Bridges. He was the fifth of her nine children and was delivered by his father, Dr. R. L. Z. Bridges. His childhood evolved within a rich and varied mixture of farm responsibilities, strict parenting, family musical efforts, rough-and-tumble practical jokes, and regular Southern Baptist religious practice. During the 1920's, Brinson had the feel of a frontier town. With its growth largely fueled by the booming turpentine business, and sustained by a core community of settled farm families, the tiny town and surrounding country supported a busy medical practice for R.L.Z. It also served as a playground and an education in human nature for his offspring. Mercer's experiences during this decade, and then later, during the long years of the Great Depression, became the fodder for his favorite and most characteristic enterprise: storytelling. Everyone who knew him, from friends to patients, from children to grandchildren, remembers at least one colorful fragment from his tales of Brinson. Richly populated with tricksters, sinners, saints, and saps, all endowed with vivid names (Goat Sims, Miz Hatcher, Chicken Morris, the twins Raymon and Dwaymon), the stories featured cattle and horses, food and hunger, bare feet and underwear made of flour sacks. They featured swarms of yellow jackets and compound cathartics slyly hidden in glasses of buttermilk. Story plots were often organized around gleeful high jinxs perpetrated at the expense of visiting 'city slicker' cousins, or more often at the expense of one or another sibling. Medical stories included all night drives down rutted dirt roads during pneumonia season to chauffer R.L.Z. to his sick and dying patients in those years before effective antibiotics. Even more vivid were the scenes of bleeding 'turpentiners' hollering drunkenly as Doc sutured their wounds. Then there were the stories delivered in more hushed tones, the scenes featuring Miz Lil, Mercer's much-loved mother. A woman of great faith who treated everyone, sinners and saints alike, with respect and compassion, Miz Lil also taught herself trombone after all her children refused the opportunity, so as to round out a family band to play in church. She raised the large family alone, and in significant financial straits, after her husband's death during the early years of the Depression. On graduating from high school, Mercer entered Furman College (now University) in Greenville, South Carolina, a couple of years behind his brother Edwin. Originally a pre-medicine major, Mercer immersed himself in music, singing in the college choir and playing a variety of musical instruments in band and orchestra as his musical horizons expanded. The tension between medicine and music that emerged during college continued on to characterize much of his subsequent life. Interrupting his college career, the outbreak of World War II took Mercer into Navy flight training school and then on into the officer corps of the U.S. Marines. He served as a night fighter pilot in the South Pacific from 1942 through 1945. Recalled to the mainland after the combat deaths of two of his brothers, Mercer completed his service as a test pilot based in California, retiring as a leatherneck Major. During these difficult years, a romance had been brewing between Mercer, the flyboy, and another Furman student, the Greenville native Ellen Hodgens. But, by the time he took off his uniform and returned to college, she had leapfrogged ahead of him, having graduated the previous year and moved to New York City for graduate school. A successful long-distance courtship ensued between Mercer, now the committed and ambitious music major, and Ellen, the big city girl. The wedding was celebrated at the end of that school year, on July 15 1947, after which Mercer joined her in the big city and began his graduate education, first at Columbia University, and then in the sacred music program at Union Theological Seminary. Their early years in New York mirrored the struggles of a whole generation of young couples during the late 40's and early 50's, all of them in a hurry after so many grinding years of war. Getting by on the G.I. bill and a variety of part time jobs, Mercer and Ellen lived first in a single room and then in a one-bedroom basement apartment, as three children were born in quick succession. Although Mercer's real musical love was classical music, particularly art songs, his talents caught the attention of the lucrative commercial music world, and a career blossomed, one that could support his growing family. He sang for TV ads, for records, and for nightclub audiences, including the famous Latin Quarter. Life in New York was good, but Mercer continued to feel a conflict between this new, fast-paced professional life and his small town upbringing, with the strain felt even more acutely as his career advanced. Finally, in 1959, after much soul searching, Mercer, Ellen, and the three children closed the door on their Riverside Drive apartment, loaded up their green 1952 Plymouth sedan, and moved to Augusta Georgia, where at age 39 Mercer began his transformation into Dr. Bridges at the Medical College of Georgia. In 1963, he graduated in the top tier of his medical school class, a member of Alpha Omega Alpha honor society. Residency in Orthopaedic Surgery followed, also at MCG, and then clinical practice as a founding member of Orthopaedic Associates of Augusta. He enriched his practice years by trips to England to work with Sir John Charnley, the pioneer of hip replacement surgery, and by repeated trips to New York City to work with specialists at the Hospital for Special Surgery. In recognition of his contributions, he was elected President of the Georgia Orthopaedic Society. He loved his work, and put in long hours, holding tightly to the old-fashioned, if time-consuming, notion that the best doctor always takes the time to listen carefully to each individual patient. But the music never stopped. Dr. Bridges sang in the choirs of quite a few churches over the years and was sought after for solo work. He was also notorious for singing operatic arias at the top of his lungs in an altogether different venue - the operating room. He managed to find time, throughout his surgical internship and residency, to be choir director at Warren Baptist Church. There he also taught adult Sunday School and was responsible for the fundraising campaign that successfully put a top-notch custom-built pipe organ into Warren's sanctuary. He and Ellen eventually joined the congregation of Augusta's First Baptist Church, attracted by the intelligent, compassionate ministry of Rev. Timothy Owings. After retiring from practice, in 1987, Mercer's energies were divided between two equally engrossing projects. First was the 3/4 acre garden he established in the red clay behind their retirement house in the North Augusta woods, and which he lovingly tended, and sometimes bullied, into yielding up crops of corn, peas, collards, okra, squash, and blueberries. Implementation of homegrown solutions to problems of pesky deer or stubborn soil quality issues occupied untold hours of overall-clad, straw-hatted toil. The second project came to be known as the Harry Jacobs Chamber Music Society, named after the longtime conductor of the Augusta Symphony, a dear friend. Mercer served as its president for a number of years, raising funds and shedding the overalls to preside over concerts in tuxedo and tails. Mercer Bridges is survived by Ellen, his wife of 62 years, and by his children, Mellena, Celia, and Truett. Also surviving are his grandchildren, Zoe, Tabes, Hanna, and Lillie; two of his sisters, Emily and Evelyn; and one brother, John; along with a host of cousins, nieces, nephews, colleagues and friends. A small family memorial service will be celebrated in Brinson. The family would be pleased if memorials were sent to the Harry Jacobs Chamber Music Society in Augusta, or to the Alzheimer's Association. Please visit our online Tribute at . Services under the direction and care of Quinn-Shalz, A Family Funeral Home, Jacksonville Beach, FL. Sign the guestbook at

The Augusta Chronicle-February 28, 2010