GREENSBORO — Eddie Bridges had a friend who grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Greensboro back in the 1940s, and Bridges kept his eye on a barn there for decades as it fell into disrepair.
He thought it would be a great place to teach kids about wildlife, and his rumination eventually turned to action. Bridges promoted the idea to local governments and prominent citizens, and he helped fund the project through his nonprofit, the N.C. Wildlife Habitat Foundation.
The Frank A. Sharpe Jr. Wildlife Center, named after Bridges’ friend, opened at Bur-Mil Park in 2003 as a city-county partnership, the rough wood beams of the original lofts supporting glass cases full of snakes and lizards.
It’s one of many times that Bridges, 80, has put what he calls his “innovative mind” to work for conservation efforts in his home state.
As a member of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission for 12 years, Bridges pioneered a trust fund to preserve land that has raised nearly $150 million, as well as several other fundraising initiatives.
Since 1994, the nonprofit he founded and still directs has raised nearly $4 million and has distributed more than $1 million to projects that preserve wild lands or educate the public about wildlife conservation.
His efforts have earned him an array of state and national awards. Last year, he was named a “Conservation Hero” by Field & Stream magazine. And this summer, he received both the Governor’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine and one of the N.C. Wildlife Commission’s most prestigious awards.
Gordon Myers, director of the commission, says Bridges is “a true conservationist who has worked tirelessly to ensure that future generations of North Carolinians have opportunities to enjoy the abundance and diversity of wildlife and wildlife habitats that we enjoy today.”
Bridges says his conservation work has been a rewarding capstone to the many years he has spent outdoors hunting and fishing – pursuits he now enjoys with his grandchildren.
“The land has been part of my life since I was a little boy, and I have gotten so much from it,” he says. “It’s gratifying to give something back to it.”
Working with purpose
Bridges wakes around 5 a.m. every day and gets to work, armed with a list of obligations he composes each night on a typewriter.
Sometimes he works on the list until past dark – going to meetings and speaking engagements, dropping off the wildlife paintings he sells to benefit his nonprofit, or distributing seeds to landowners. He crosses off each completed item with a single straight line in pencil.
Lately he gets around in the new truck his organization won with the Field & Stream award, the acorn emblem of the foundation on the side and the license plate that benefits the foundation on the back.
He keeps a close eye on the projects his foundation funds, which tend to be modest and immediately useful – establishing fisheries and building boardwalks to view birds, for instance.
“I look for people that if I can supply them with a little help, they’ll get a lot of mileage out of it,” he says.
The foundation is modeled after the endowment he helped start at the wildlife commission, spending only the interest from its donated money.
He says he started it by taking six people to breakfast and laying out a plan. They pitched in $38 to buy stamps for mail solicitations; several of them remain on the foundation’s board of directors.
Since then, Bridges has devised dozens of other ways to bring in money, from an annual gala to selling donated bird nesting boxes.
Although he has close ties with some of the state’s wealthiest families, many of whom donate to the foundation, he doesn’t count himself among the well-heeled.
“I don’t have much, but I’m a guy that doesn’t need much,” he says.
Love of the land
Bridges grew up in the foothills of rural Burke County, where he fell in love with the land during long hours of fishing, rabbit hunting and simply wandering outdoors in a place with few people and seemingly endless forests and rivers.
“You could just consume all of that without much competition,” he says. “It developed in me a deep interest and involvement in the outdoors.”
His parents split when he was young, and he lived with relatives much of his young life, mostly with his grandparents. His grandfather worked long hours running the machine shop at a cotton mill; Bridges recalls dropping off his breakfast in Mason jars on his way to school.
At another time he lived with an aunt who had no running water or electricity. He would haul water from a nearby spring to the house, and peering through the clear water at the tiny creatures roaming the bottom was one of his first memories of being awed by nature.
He considered wildlife biology as a career, but his love of sports dominated his high school and college years. He played football and baseball, earning his degree at Elon University on an athletic scholarship.
He planned to teach and coach after graduating, but instead he met a former professional football player who asked him to help open a sports store in Greensboro.
That store lasted a few years. Bridges then opened his own shop, Carolina Athletic Supply, which he ran for nearly 30 years. The store sold gear for sports teams, as well as for hunting and fishing.
Running the store helped him make connections with the outdoors community, and he was soon working with various groups, including Ducks Unlimited, on preserving habitats for hunting and fishing.
Once he sold his business in 1983, he redoubled his commitment to conservation. By then, he had already served five years on the state Wildlife Resources Commission.
He joined the commission at a time when it was starving for money and worked hard to find ways to raise funds, including the sale of lifetime hunting and fishing licenses and stamps to benefit waterfowl.
He’s best known for starting the N.C. Wildlife Endowment Fund, a model for preserving land that has since been copied in other states.
Since he started his own foundation, it has preserved more than 200 acres of wildlife habitat through its Adopt-an-Acre program.
Bridges says he is fairly sure he’ll meet his initial goal of raising $5 million. Far from resting on his laurels, he’s mulling a more ambitious goal.
“I don’t know where the end is,” he says.
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