When Keith Bridger and the late Rob Wright were guiding a crew of volunteers in the planning and construction of the Nelson Tennis Club’s new facility at L.V. Rogers Secondary School, the two men were always the first on the site, says the club’s head coach Matt Martin.
“Rob would look like he slept in his truck the night before,” said Martin. “Keith showed up in his khaki shorts, polo shirt tucked in. Keith would have the plans drawn out on graph paper and Robbie would be getting the crew energized by drawing the plans in the dirt with a stick.”
Martin says every work party started out with a few laughs because of the chemistry between Bridger and Wright, whose different personalities complemented each other perfectly.
“Robbie was the dreamer, Keith would make it happen. Robbie was the tradey, Keith was the doctor. Rob was the energy, Keith was the architect. They were bros, they were family.”
This week Bridger and Wright jointly won Nelson’s Citizen of the Year award in recognition of that work. The honour for Wright is posthumous – he died of cancer on Feb. 6.
Bridger says he’s grateful to have won the award with his best friend.
“It’s a rare thing in life to to have this kind of a bond with a kindred spirit,” Bridger said. “That was his great gift to me. I feel like I’m a lucky guy.”
Citizen of the Year, which was first awarded to Helen Morris in 1964, recognizes Nelson residents for significant contributions to the community.
The nomination for Bridger and Wright was put forward jointly by members of the tennis and hockey communities. Bridger is active in the Nelson Tennis Club and Wright, in addition to his work with the tennis courts, was well known for his decades of volunteer work coaching hockey players of all ages in Nelson.
“Together, they exemplify dedication to community health and well-being, generosity toward their follow citizens of all ages, an unshakable positive outlook and overall kindness in the face of adversity and challenge,” the nomination document states.
Wright’s wife, Tammy Wright, told the Nelson Star her husband had wanted Bridger to be nominated for the award, but members of the hockey community had wanted to nominate Wright.
“So it’s the best of both worlds now,” she said. “Rob would be so happy. He would have had such a big grin on his face.”
Wright’s long history as a well-loved hockey coach, mentor, and fundraiser, much of it volunteer, as well as other social and artistic pursuits, was the subject of a Nelson Star profile published shortly after his death.
“It’s strange,” Bridger said, “because the award is really to this entity that we were, together, this creative partnership. It’s almost like an award to us as one person in a way.”
The two men met in 2017 when Bridger, as president of the Nelson Tennis Club, recruited Wright as a volunteer because he noticed his high energy level.
“When he did something, he did it 100 per cent,” Bridger said.
They went on to become an unstoppable force in fundraising, organizing and building the new courts at LVR.
“It was quite a wonderful experience,” Bridger said, “because we had different but complementary skill sets that dovetailed, and it just worked so well to allow us to get things done.”
Tennis club board member Angus Glass was impressed with the partnership.
“Rob was obviously great at communications and getting people fired up,” Glass said. “And Keith, of course, was planning and trying to keep tabs on all the costs and trying to keep the project on track. They were like two peas in a pod.”
Bridger was a family physician in Nelson from his arrival here in 1994 to his retirement in 2016.
“I had a 14-year hiatus from tennis when I was practising medicine,” he said. “So the moment I retired, I wandered up to the courts. Little did I know how involved I was going to become. It has been very rewarding.”
The three-year $660,000 tennis court project, which has a shared use agreement with School District 8, so far has three pickle ball courts and four tennis courts, as well as space for basketball, street hockey and skateboarding.
Now Bridger and the other volunteers are facing the final stages of the project without Wright.
“We did feel quite flattened with the loss of Rob,” Bridger says. “He left a big hole, not just in his family, but at the courts and in the community. But he was the type of guy who would dust himself off, get back up, and get back at it.
“And I’m sure that’s what he would want us to do, and we still have a great team of volunteers. So we’re going to get that project done.”