Herbert M. "Herb" Bridge lived a full, well-traveled life as a successful businessman, a naval officer in two wars, and a Seattle civic leader and philanthropist whose boundless energies earned him the nickname "Mr. Downtown." Bridge joined the U.S. Navy shortly after the United States entered World War II and during a 41-year career in the navy and Naval Reserve rose to the rank of rear admiral. He and his brother, Robert, took over their father’s Seattle jewelry store, Ben Bridge, and from it developed a chain of more than 70 stores, from Minnesota to Hawaii. The civic and philanthropic efforts of Bridge and his wife, Shirley Selesnick Bridge (1922-2008), earned them many awards from local and national groups. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Herb Bridge First Citizen for 2001.
Herbert Marvin Bridge was born in Seattle to Ben and Sally Silverman Bridge. Ben Bridge was 10 when he arrived in the United States from Poland with his mother and siblings in 1906. Ben’s father, Joseph, had preceded them, having been sponsored by a great-uncle, Alex, who had arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 1890 and found success as a merchant. Alex had changed his surname -- a not uncommon move for Eastern European émigrés of the time -- from Bryczkowski to Bridge, and the rest of the family followed suit.
The family came to the United States on that wave of Jews escaping pogroms in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe beginning around 1880. Many of these recently arrived Jews remained on the East Coast, but others scattered throughout the country, including Seattle. By the time Ben Bridge arrived in Seattle, there was already a small but thriving, and occasionally contentious community that included German and Sephardic Jews as well as Polish Jews, and a few Russian Jews who had found their way to the Puget Sound area via Siberia.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Ben Bridge was 21 and working for Schwabacher & Bros., the already legendary Klondike Gold Rush outfitter that had spawned several of early Seattle’s civic leaders. Ben immediately volunteered for the U.S. Navy and served on a submarine chaser in the Adriatic Sea as a chief petty officer radio electrician.
Ben Bridge, Jeweler
After the war Ben Bridge returned to Seattle and to Schwabacher, and in 1922 married Sally Silverman, a daughter of another Polish émigré, Samuel Silverman, who had opened a shop on 3rd Avenue in 1912 -- “a combination watchmaker, jeweler, and optician,” according to Herb Bridge. Sally was a 1919 Franklin High graduate. The couple set up housekeeping, first in Madison Park, later in the Mount Baker area. Herb Bridge was born on March 14, 1925. A brother, Robert L., was born on January 14, 1931.
Silverman took in Ben as a partner and, when ill health forced Silverman to move to California in 1927, Ben bought him out and changed the firm’s name to “Ben Bridge.”
Herb Bridge remembers an old-country upbringing: work, discipline, responsibility, high expectations. “When I went into the Navy at 17, it was a vacation. They couldn’t ... make it tougher than it was with my Dad.” At age 9, he was up at 5 a.m. to sell the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the Seattle-Kirkland ferry and later, when attending Franklin High School, his route required a 3 a.m. start. Both he and brother Bob also worked in their father’s store throughout high school. It was the 1930s Depression at Franklin (“very few blacks, lots of Asians”), but if he “liked to fight,” he remembers no anti-Semitism.
Herb joined the U.S. Navy right out of high school, following in his dad’s footsteps. “Oh yeah. He was always my hero anyhow ... his personal life, [his] morality.” Like many American youths coming of age in the shadow of World War II, Herb said, “I was afraid the war would be over before I could get in ... . That sounds strange to the kids today.”
Herb’s “vacation” started with boot camp at San Diego, followed by duty aboard a destroyer escort in the Pacific theater. In 1943, he was one of 12 who applied for an officer’s training billet at the University of Washington. Bridge recounted, “The skipper asked, ‘If you weren’t selected, would you feel it was because you were a Jew?’ I was naïve. I don’t remember what I said, but it was along the lines, ‘I was brought up to believe that in the U.S. Navy you did what you did right and that’s what you were judged on. ’” It was the only time he could remember a Semitic reference, in or out of the service.
He earned a commission in 1945 and served on the escort carrier USS Breton (CVE-23), again in the Pacific. The Breton was built by Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corp., Tacoma, and commissioned on April 12, 1943.
Bridge was discharged in 1946 a lieutenant, j.g. (junior grade). He then completed his studies at the University of Washington, earning a liberal arts degree in 1947 and finding time to earn the intramural senior welterweight boxing title.
Family Business and Family
Upon graduation he joined his father’s business because “I had no choice.” When he was in the Pacific in 1943, in fact, his father sent him a note to be signed, telling him he was a one-fourth owner of the store. “That was career consultation, Ben Bridge style. You did what you were told,” Herb Bridge said.
In 1948, Herb married Shirley Selesnick, who had graduated from the University of Washington magna cum laude to become one of the state’s earliest registered female pharmacists. “I’m very proud of her. She’s one hell of a pharmacist.” A son, Jonathan, was born in 1950 and Daniel was born in 1954. Both attended Central Area schools, “self-motivated” to do so, Ben said. “My wife and I are liberal Democrats, we believed in color-blind, in equal rights, and the kids grew up that way.”
Jonathan graduated from the University of Washington School of Law having completed Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps and was commissioned in 1972, continuing the family tradition. He saw duty in Vietnam during the latter stages of the Vietnam War. Son Daniel also attended the University of Washington, and became a Reformed rabbi.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the U.S. Navy recalled Herb Bridge to duty and he served until 1952, when he returned to the Naval Reserve. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1976. He retired in 1983. Brother Bob, who had graduated from the University of Washington in 1952 under NROTC auspices, also did a Navy tour.
Ben Bridge, the Business
When Ben Bridge retired in 1955, Herb and Bob Bridge took over the store. Over the years, they built a chain of some 75 shops from Minnesota to Hawaii, mostly in malls, though Seattle’s 4th Avenue and Pike Street store remains the flagship. In May 2000, the company became a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., but Herb and Bob Bridge remain as co-chairmen.
Along the way, Herb Bridge learned watchmaking (“We were brought up ... to learn a trade”) and gemology, becoming active in the American Gem Society. The Bridges also helped found a watchmaking curriculum at North Seattle Community College, one of only three in the United States accredited by the Swiss watchmakers.
Mother Sally Bridge died in 1965; Ben Bridge died in 1974.
When not involved with business, family, or the Navy, Herb Bridge’s extracurricular civic activities were earning him the sobriquet of “Mr. Downtown.” During the 1950s, suburban flight was endangering downtown cores, throughout the country, including Seattle’s. “Northgate [Shopping Mall, which opened in April 1950] was the beginning of the end unless we did something,” Bridge said.
That “something” was the Seattle Central Association, which later became the Downtown Seattle Association, and involved itself in a range of projects to maintain downtown vitality. Some of them were highly controversial, such as the 1963 plan to raze Pike Place Market (dropped in response to a campaign led by historic preservationists and market advocates) and the 1968 Westlake Center project.
But Herb Bridge’s interests ranged beyond downtown and there apparently was no civic or charitable request he wouldn’t undertake. In addition to heading the Downtown Seattle Association and the Washington Athletic Club, he was a founder of the Better Business Bureau and a Seattle Rotary board member. He was devoted to United Way, and was also instrumental in the effort to provide low-income housing through the Seattle Housing Resources Group. He actively promoted the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle to help mitigate Cold War tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Bridge also chairs the Puget Sound United Services Organization (USO), served on the Seattle advisory board of the Navy League, chaired the American Gem Society trustees, and has been involved with the American Legion, Kiwanis, Shrine, and other Masonic orders. He has been active in Temple de Hirsch Sinai, the American Jewish Committee, and has chaired the Federated Jewish Fund in Seattle.
In 1986 Bridge chaired the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the first Jew to be elected since Bailey Gatzert (1829-1893), who held the chair from 1894 to 1890. (Gatzert also served as mayor of Seattle. He was the first and so far  only Jew so elected.)
Occasionally, however, attempts to do good turn bad. When maritime preservationists, including Kay Bullitt (b. 1925), were trying to save the old wood-hulled steam ferry San Mateo, Bridge prodded the Navy to allow mooring it temporarily at the Naval Reserve facility on south Lake Union. “That was one of the worst things that ever happened,” Bridge said. Moorage was offered “for a short-term basis, a week or two. Two years later, the old ferry is sinking and we had to exert legal pressure to get the San Mateo out of there."
Herb’s wife Shirley amassed her own advocacy credentials, and did so while battling a succession of cancers since 1955, including surviving an operation to relieve pressure on her brain. She was active in women’s, health, and children’s issues and served on the board of AIDS Housing of Washington. Cottages for AIDS-afflicted families in West Seattle were named for Shirley Bridge.
She was also involved with Jewish Family Services and the League of Women Voters. “She is amazing. ... She’s just a good human being,” Herb said in a 2005 interview.
If all this appears as excessive benevolence to some, it is for Jews much more. “It’s tzedakah,” Herb Bridge said, by way of justification. “It’s a Hebrew word meaning, ‘justice.’ ” One is expected to give back, but it’s more than generosity, more of an obligation; like tithing, another expectation for Jews.
For the Bridges, this tzedakah was a family affair. Son Jon joined Herb as co-chair of the 2000 United Way drive that raised $93.3 million. Brother Bob and his wife, Bobbi Bridge, were active in civic and educational affairs, and Jon’s wife, Bobbe, who served as a state Supreme Court justice, was active in civic causes before and after serving on the court.
Herb Bridge donated regularly to political candidates, and actively participated in the 1972 and 1976 presidential bids of Senator Henry M. ("Scoop") Jackson (1912-1983), slogging through the Midwest working on the Jackson campaign. Jackson was a Cold War hawk and strong supporter of Israel, "which struck very responsive chords" for Bridge. In 1998, Bridge also supported Initiative 688, increasing minimum wage from $4.90 to $5.70.
For fun, Bridge wheeled his bright yellow 2001 Gold Wing GL1800, Honda’s big six-cylinder road cruiser. "It has cruise control, CD, it has everything," he enthused. In mid-2005, Bridge’s newest venture was bringing the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Seattle Center, an effort to “mitigate tension between religions ... like the Goodwill Games and Russia.”
Brother Lost to Benevolence
In 2001 the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors recognized Herb Bridge as First Citizen of the year. At the award ceremony on May 30, 2002, Herb’s brother Bob said, "You’ve all heard about loaned executives; well, 25 years ago I loaned my brother to the city and never got him back" (Blankinship).
Herb and Shirley Bridge were also awarded E. Donnall Thomas Medals of Achievement by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute and honored by, among others, the National Council of Christians and Jews, the Museum of History and Industry, the YMCA, and Jewish National Fund.
Shirley Bridge died in June 2008. Herb Bridge died ten years later in April 2018, at the age of 93.