Smith: Bill Armstrong was courteous, thoughtful and a true statesman
Author: Morgan Smith - July 14, 2016 - Updated: July 9, 2016
“Bill Armstrong is going to be your co-chairman,” Joe Shoemaker said.
“Oh no,” I thought. “Not Bill Armstrong.”
It was 1998 and former state Sen. Joe Shoemaker had asked me to co-chair a campaign to build an endowment for the Greenway Foundation called the Greenway Preservation Trust Foundation. He had an excellent relationship with then-Denver Mayor Wellington Webb but wanted to create an endowment as insurance against the possibility that a future mayor would be less supportive of his efforts to improve the South Platte or that the economy would crash.
I knew that I couldn’t say no to Joe; we had been through too much together as members of the Joint Budget Committee in the 1970s. But working with Bill Armstrong? I didn’t know him personally but had strong memories of his crushing defeat of incumbent U.S. Sen. Floyd Haskell in 1978. My wife, Julie, and I had helped Floyd in Adams County in his successful U.S. Senate race in 1972, considered him a friend and had a vested interest in his re-election in 1978. It soon became obvious, however, that he didn’t have a prayer of winning. And he was defeated 59 percent to 40 percent. Not only that, but Bill Armstrong became the leader of an overwhelmingly powerful conservative movement that swept us Democrats into oblivion.
However, my initial reluctance to become co-chairman with Armstrong changed instantly when we first met. I realized that it was an extraordinary honor just to be with him. Courteous, thoughtful, highly intelligent and totally focused on his goals, he was a true giant in terms of politics and business. He left the state Legislature in 1972, the year I was elected, and I regret that I never had a chance to work with him, because he was the kind of legislator who combined his very strong beliefs with a willingness to work with others of differing beliefs and to compromise in search of a common goal. That, to me, is the mark of a statesman. It is also a quality that rarely exists today. Armstrong’s work on the National Commission on Social Security Reform in 1983 is a good example.
At the time he agreed to co-chair Joe and Jeff Shoemaker’s endowment drive, he had many other issues on his plate, and cleaning up the South Platte wasn’t at the top of his list. But he took the task on out of loyalty to Joe, with whom he had served in the Legislature. This is another quality that is too often missing in politics today — loyalty — but in the case of legislators like Shoemaker and Armstrong, it was paramount.
We began that campaign with a $1 million challenge grant from Bill Daniels and in the photo of the four of us — Armstrong, the Shoemakers and me — we were referred to as the “four ugly dogs.” It was a grant that would never have occurred but for Daniels’ respect for Armstrong. Eventually we exceeded our goal by over $1 million and there’s no question that Armstrong’s involvement gave us a huge boost — his prestige, his enormous circle of friends and the respect with which we all viewed him. When the economy crashed from 2009 to 2011, the endowment saved the Greenway Foundation.
I last saw Bill at Joe Shoemaker’s funeral service on the banks of the South Platte in 2012. A number of dignitaries spoke, but it was Bill Armstrong’s’s warmth, sincerity and affection that lit up the day and made me realize that I had been blessed to have had this opportunity to work with him.