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Column: Remembering Roy Bridges, a Gainesville High School legend
Johnny Vardeman
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Roy Bridges is a1961 Gainesville High School graduate who piloted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Challenger space shuttle in 1985. Image courtesy The Times archives

Streets, athletic fields, classrooms and even crosswalks and concession stands have been named for people connected with Gainesville High School or other city schools.

We have E.L. Cabbell Field, Billy Lothridge Boulevard, Bobby Gruhn Field, Deshaun Watson Way, Walt Snelling Press Box, Tommy Aaron Drive, Pam Ware Performing Arts Center, Dr. Merrianne Dyer Media Center, Jacob Wilmont Crosswalk and a whole lot more.

But no Gainesville High graduate, educator or school system supporter has soared to the heights of Roy Bridges, 1961 GHS graduate who piloted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Challenger space shuttle in 1985. 

The Gainesville school board will name a street on the campus of Gainesville Exploration Academy on McEver Road in his honor.

Bridges moved to Gainesville from a farm in Pendergrass in the middle of his ninth grade school year. He had been used to getting up at 4 a.m. to milk cows on his parents’ dairy farm.

“It was quite amazing to move from a very much rural area to a place like Gainesville,” he said recently. 

The family moved to a then-new subdivision, Lakeshore Heights, where Bridges experienced indoor plumbing for the first time. He had to use an outhouse on the farm.

“It was a little intimidating with a bigger school and more people,” Bridges said. 

But, students accepted the country boy with open arms, and he began to show his leadership with election to offices such as class president.

Bridges went out for football even though he weighed a mere 117 pounds. 

“They gave me the worst equipment,” he said. “My shoes were cracked and hurt my feet.” 

He stayed through spring practice scrimmage before deciding to quit. When he told Graham Hixon, his coach, he was quitting, the man didn’t do much to dissuade him, he said. That was in the era of such Gainesville High greats as Billy Lothridge, Billy Martin and Preston Ridlehuber, all of whom went on to play in college and the National Football League. Instead, Bridges made it with the Red Elephant band, playing baritone.

Bridges credits the education he got at Gainesville High as the inspiration and foundation for his achievements in further schooling and beyond. He was an honor graduate at Gainesville High School and the Air Force Academy, as well as the first honor graduate at test pilot school. He earned his master’s from Purdue University.

“The teachers (at Gainesville High School) … we had fantastic teachers,” he said, singling out his chemistry teacher, Mark Carter, who inspired his interest in flying. 

Bridges had wanted to fly as a little boy.

He sat behind Brenda Hampton Young in math class. 

“He would help me with math,” Hampton said. 

Finally, one day, Bridges slammed his fist on his desk and declared, “I can’t help you anymore, Brenda. I’ve got to help myself. I’m going to the moon.”

His math, trigonometry and calculus teacher was the late Allen Webster, who once said of Bridges, “He was one of the brightest of an exceptionally bright group of students who came through that era.”

Selected as an astronaut in 1980, Bridges never made it to the moon, but he took the Challenger space shuttle into Earth’s orbit despite one of three engines failing shortly after launch. The initial launch of that flight had to be scrubbed, but Bridges and his crew went into space July 29, 1985.

Besides that flight, Bridges has flown through the highest heights of NASA and the U.S. Air Force, including his role as director of the Kennedy Space Center and commander of Edwards Air Force Base. His many achievements and positions placed him in the Aviation Hall of Fame. Now 78, he retired in 1996 as a major general and lives in Colorado Springs.

Liz and Roy Sr.

When they moved to Gainesville, Bridges’ mother, Liz, worked as a nurse at what was once Hall County Hospital. Bridges’ father, Roy Sr., also worked in a clinic at the hospital.

Later the couple teamed up to form Liz and Roy’s Frame Shop on Atlanta Highway.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, His column publishes weekly.

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