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Bridge Lady's book project gets a big lift

Fundraising tours will help local students learn about spans
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Sharon Wood Wortman, aka the Bridge Lady, takes on her dream project: writing a bridge book for young children. She's leading two public bridge walks in coming weeks to raise funds to distribute the books for free to Portland and Vancouver classrooms.

Just last summer, Sharon Wood Wortman - aka the Bridge Lady - hung up her walking shoes, bought a home with her husband near Mount Hood and went into semi-retirement after 20 years of leading bridge tours in Portland.

Her followers knew she'd be back - and sure enough, she is.

Along with her husband, Ed Wortman, a retired Multnomah County bridge engineer, Wood Wortman is once again pounding the pavement of Portland's bridges this month and next, to raise $40,000 for a project she's been dreaming about for a while.

Her goal is to write and distribute free copies of a bridge book for third-grade classrooms in the Portland School District and fourth-grade classrooms in the Vancouver School District. Those grades study the bridges but teachers must put together their own piecemeal curriculum.

She'll lead two upcoming three-hour bridge walks, $55 apiece and open to anyone who signs up.

'I'm going to be 67 in December,' she says. 'When you get to be that age, you start giving everything away again.'

A project of the nonprofit PDX Bridge Festival, 'The Big and Awesome Bridges of Portland and Vancouver - A Book for Young Readers,' is billed as the first bona fide book about local bridges written for children.

Many of the 60 Portland State University undergrads who joined her on a bridge walk Monday afternoon were thrilled to hear about the project, and they were caught up in Wood Wortman's enthusiasm.

'She's not an engineer; she comes at it from a different angle,' says Corey Castelow, a sophomore environmental engineering major.

In fact, Wood Wortman received her master's degree in education but never taught in the classroom. That's why she's employed the help of local teachers to advise her in the content area.

Wood Wortman is best known for her iconic 'Portland Bridge Book,' published in 1989 and in its third edition. In 2005, she created 'Bridge in a Box,' a bridge building and testing kit that comes with seven patterns of local truss bridges, a glue gun, glue sticks, other bridge parts and a glossary of engineering terms.

Like stage actors who dabble in the music, Wood Wortman also recorded a CD, 'Bridges, Bridges, Bridges!' that includes her own bridge poetry and an illustrated guide to climbing the Fremont Bridge.

But she's best known for her personable walking tours, which are packed with tidbits and unexpected turns. 'It's all kind of like street theater,' Wood Wortman says. 'I've never led the same walk twice.'

Excited about engineering

Students like Castelow are eager to see the classroom book take off.

'As a female in a male-dominated field, I hold this type of community outreach close to my heart,' says Castelow, a member of the Society of Women Engineers who's gotten the organization on board to help seek grant funds as well.

As a child growing up in Norfolk, Va., Castelow says, 'I'm pretty sure I didn't even know what an engineer was when I was in elementary school. I want to make sure that females aren't reaching college and able to say the same thing.'

Tom Szymoniak, a PSU civil and environmental engineering professor, is also passionate about the project, preparing his classes to expose young students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and 'basically get them hooked on the field.'

The Big and Awesome book showcases art from students at Northeast Portland's Sabin School and ACCESS Academy, PPS' magnet school for highly gifted children.

The national Council of Greater Schools, of which PPS is a member, commissioned an art specialist at Sabin and ACCESS to help create art for the project. Their work - 24 unique 12-by-12-inch bridge images led by the specialist, Christopher Lamp - was featured on the tabletops of the organization's conference banquet for 1,000 attendees last year in Portland. The theme was bridges.

Some of the images have been turned into greeting cards sold as fundraisers for the Bridge Art Project. This year, 14 new bridges were added to the series, some of which are included on the poster of Portland-Vancouver bridges that's being sold to benefit the Big and Awesome book publishing.

Every bridge walk is different, depending on the mobility of the group, the weather and the Oregon Department of Transportation's schedule, since she begins with a 'Bridge 101' introduction at the ODOT Region 1 Headquarter's office in Old Town, where there's also a historic bridge museum.

She also coordinates each walk with the county's test lift schedule, so she can wow participants with an up-close view of the Morrison or Burnsid bride span lifts.

'I have $1 million in a liability policy,' Wood Wortman says. 'The county considers it public education. And we never do it at rush hour or lunch hour.'

Wrapping up the Monday's walk, she and husband Ed - whom she met in 1993 while he was working on the Fremont Bridge - hold hands as they walk into Old Town to get a bite to eat.

Bridges, not surprisingly, are the focus of the couple's travels, and movie-watching.

'Bridges are fun,' says Ed Wortman. 'Lots of movies have bridges. One of us will go, 'Bridge!' '

'Bridges,' Wood Wortman adds, 'are the world's oldest metaphor.'

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