This month in Denver, I attended a remarkable event — a simple reunion of people who once worked for U.S. Sen. William L. Armstrong. There were dozens of people there, sharing fond memories and funny stories of what most still consider the best years of their lives. I spent 10 unforgettable years on his Washington, D.C. staff. Like everyone else there, I have since been associated with numerous other organizations and foundations that do wonderful work. None of them have regular reunions, nor have the people in those other organizations stayed in close touch or been together frequently. But former Armstrong staffers always have, and remain to this day an extended family.
Across the country, there have been dozens of obituaries, tributes, eulogies, and retrospectives about the life of Bill Armstrong, who passed away this week just three days after this most recent reunion. The outpouring of respect and admiration will continue from unexpected quarters for months, and thousands attended his funeral. That may seem extraordinary for someone whose career in politics ended a quarter century ago.
The obligatory news stories have recited the basic facts of his life. He was the youngest person ever elected to the Colorado State House in 1962, and State Senate in 1964, the youngest Senate Majority Leader in the State’s history, and one of the youngest members of Congress when elected in 1972. He served three terms in the House and two in the Senate, beginning with his 1978 upset victory over incumbent Senator Floyd Haskell. From 2006 until his passing, he served as President of Colorado Christian University, bringing unprecedented growth and honor to that institution, now ranked in the top two percent of colleges and universities in the country for the quality of its core curriculum. He founded the Centennial Institute at CCU, now a top conservative think tank, and launched the Western Conservative Summit, which draws thousands of conservatives to Denver annually. He was also an enormously successful businessman, owning at least a dozen different companies ranging from radio stations to mortgage banks. He served on several corporate boards and was Chairman of the Oppenheimer Funds.
Other recent political leaders have similarly impressive résumés, so what made Bill Armstrong so different that his passing is such an overwhelming loss to so many? Most of the current students of political science and history never knew him and have no memory of his years in the rough-and-tumble world of state and national politics. But there is a simple reason he will not soon be forgotten.
Bill Armstrong was, quite simply, the most influential person in Colorado politics over the past 40 years.
In the aftermath of Watergate, the Colorado Republican party was dysfunctional. Many “experts” had pronounced it dead after the loss of both U.S. Senate seats, the Governor’s office, the Legislature, and hundreds of local offices. Voters had elected George McGovern’s national campaign manager, Gary Hart, to the Senate, and his senior colleague Floyd Haskell was rising in national power. Pundits didn’t give the young Congressman Armstrong much chance of unseating Haskell in 1978. But they didn’t know him well yet.
Armstrong was among the Senate’s most effective and hard-working legislators, showing up early, staying late, and criticizing leadership for taking long holidays while the country’s work remained unfinished. (Sound familiar?) When he spoke, other senators listened — not just because he always spoke with flawless grammar, or because his deep resonant radio voice was the envy of all, but because he was always true to timeless principles. He often embarrassed other senators into doing the right thing, and his accomplishments were numerous — tax indexing to preserve middle-class purchasing power; protecting benefits of disabled people; shepherding RARE II wilderness legislation for Colorado; “sodbuster” provisions for soil conservation; the 1980s-era tax cuts that fueled a generation of prosperity; the 1986 Social Security reform commission, and so many more.
But the reasons for Armstrong’s astonishing influence have little to do with legislation or business accomplishments. People wanted to be around him because of his unfailing optimism, humility, and humor. He took his work very seriously, but not himself. He was the ultimate teacher in that respect. Above all, he was a man of endless faith and principles — the very definition of integrity. Generations of followers have spent their lives trying to be more like him.
Greg Walcher Senior Advisor
A member of the Dawson team since 2006, Greg is the author of Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back. He is a Western Slope native.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.