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James Armstrong Remembers His Father

James Armstrong, June 22, 1931-June 16, 2013

He was born in Parkersburg, West Virginia, the third of four brothers. Now, only his eldest brother Bill survives. He went to Duke University on a Navy ROTC scholarship, became president of pi kappa alpha his senior year, and graduated with a degree in Physics in 1953. He served for three years in the Navy, and was most proud of navigating a destroyer around the world. At the end of his tour of duty, he met my mother, and they were married on December 22, 1956. They remained married. I was born in 1960 and my sister was born in 1962.

Growing up, he was a kind man. The best memories I have were of going to baseball games with him at RFK Stadium, where hot dogs were 35 cents, and we'd watch the Senators from the upper deck in the outfield. I had perhaps more than my share of teen angst, and it was during those years that our relationship was strained. I guess that is a normal phase of growing up, but it didn't seem so at the time. I recall not wanting to confront him in the morning, so I'd wake up at 6:55 -- one or two minutes after he left for work in the morning. It wasn't until I received my drivers' license that things improved.

He gave me the opportunity to show my trustworthiness by an agreement where if I took him to the train in the morning, and picked him up in the evening, he'd let me use the car during the day, and after he got home from work. It was on these drives that I started to know him better as a person, and though I didn't realize it at the time, it was the beginning of a friendship.

I went off to Duke University, where my academic career was not quite as stellar as his. Before I left, we met in the city for lunch, and for a drink at the World Trade Center. He was supportive through my education, and even agreed to help pay for graduate school when I graduated into the 1982 recession.

My father was an executive at AT&T, and my first job was at AT&T Information Systems. While I could have asked him to use his influence to help me with my career, I have a strong independent streak, and never thought to ask. His respect for me was that he also never thought to offer any form of nepotism to advance my career.

In 1990, I moved to California. It was a result of this move that further strengthened our friendship. When Amy died (22 years ago today) he was there to help console me. It is through her death that I am better able to face the grief I feel, and the mourning I face.

He had commented on some of the pictures I had taken at various national parks, and in 1995, I flew him out to California and took him on a tour of the California and Arizona parks. He enjoyed that tremendously, and as a result, we later took trips up to Washington, Utah, and finally in 2011 for his 80th birthday (and my mother's 75th birthday) to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. We received as much joy from sharing these wonderful places as I did visiting them on my own.

He retired in the mid-1990's and moved to Cape May County, New Jersey. He was always an avid birder for as long as I can remember, and Cape May is the place to be on the east coast for birding. He regularly volunteered at the Cape May Bird Observatory, leading walks in the spring, and showing up almost every day in the fall for the hawk migration. His eagerness for eagles has caused the turkey vulture to be nicknamed the "Armstrong's Eagle" -- a humorous joke on how birders will always try to make a better bird from something more mundane. When I could afford it, I'd fly out in May, for the peak of the spring warbler migration, or in the fall, for the hawk watch. This was something we shared.

I am grateful that he could see some of the spring migration this year, though the battle with cancer left him almost disabled, and age had destroyed his vision. I do not want to remember him as I saw him on his deathbed, though that memory will stick with me for the rest of my life. Instead, though, I will remember him for his love of nature, and of the birds we saw together, even in far reaching places like the Tonle Sapp in Cambodia, or the parks of Tanzania. I will remember our talks about the upcoming basketball season for Duke; he was always hoping the team would do well. I will remember our discussions about politics, he was a New Deal Democrat from childhood, and remained one of the most liberal people I know.

But, the main thing I will remember was that he was a kind, compassionate man, and he was one of my best friends.

James can be contacted at: