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Robert Armstrong

Robert C. Armstrong: The Merchant Prince

Armstrong Hall, a residence facility on campus, was named after Robert Armstrong, an influential Coe alumnus who made his mark in Cedar Rapids as president of Armstrong's Department Store.   Perhaps Armstrong always knew that he would assume the presidency of this business, but his education was certainly not limited to a narrow concentration of business courses.  His Coe years reveal a young man with a strong commitment to a broad, enriching liberal arts education.  While a student at Coe, Armstrong was well known as a member of the YMCA, serving as president of that organization his senior year. However, Armstrong spent much of his time on the Inter-Collegiate Debate and Forensic Board teams. During his senior year, he was the leader of Coe's three-person negative team. The argument for debate that year was permanent price control by the federal government, and Armstrong led his debate crew to an undefeated season with victories over the affirmative teams from Grinnell, Northwestern, and Ripon Colleges.

Upon his graduation (summa cum laude) from Coe in 1918, Armstrong attended the U.S. Military Academy and then the Harvard School of Business Administration. After returning to Cedar Rapids (and eventually marrying Esther Youel, class of 1925), Armstrong worked in the department store created by his father and inherited the business when his Samuel Armstrong died in 1929.  During the next fifty years, Armstrong would emerge as a powerful community leader.  His remarkable administrative skills and willingness to serve in dozens of organizations made him both popular and influential.  His generosity and fairness in dealing with employees, who were always called "Armstrong's Associates," created a strong base for his community-wide projects.  His influence was particularly notable in his insistence on fair hiring practices for minorities and integrated residential communities.  An obituary in the Cedar Rapids Gazette praises his outspokenness:

Never one to shirk toe-stepping when he felt it necessary, he showed a singular tenacity in furthering his causes and convictions. With most of the important judgments he reached--on business matters or community concerns among the many boards and agencies on which he served--the chances were extremely small that there would ever be a change. You knew where Robert Armstrong stood, for better or for worse.

Coe College often benefited from Armstrong's influential presence. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was a member of the Board of Trustees--an active Trustee for 36 years and a Life Trustee for another 8 years.  He served on the Board's Executive Committee, was the chairman for the Ford Foundation matching donation campaign in the 1960s, and was the national leadership gifts chairman in a Coe Capital Campaign. In Armstrong's eulogy, Coe's President Emeritus Joe McCabe said:

He was strong-minded and stubborn or steadfast, depending on your point of view. When he took a position, he held to it. Old Washington High down on Greene Square, Coe, West Point, Harvard--these were his watering places in the intellectual quest. In an earlier time, he could have been referred to as a merchant prince.

In his will written nearly 70 years after his graduation from Coe, Armstrong concluded the document with fond memories of his alma mater:

I have found that my involvement, while a student at Coe College, in forensics to have been of great value to me throughout my life. I accordingly ask that my Trustees explore with Coe College the feasibility, not only from a cost aspect but more importantly from a student interest aspect, of establishing an Endowed Chair in Forensics at Coe College.

Although the college was not able to fulfill Armstrong's request, it says something about the powerful impact of his experiences at Coe that in his final years--when reflecting back on a long and distinguished career--he chose to focus on his forensics experiences as a college debater. 

Of all the people involved with Coe College in the 20th century, Robert Armstrong was perhaps the truest successor to those dedicated businessmen and civic leaders of the 19th century who persevered in the creation and sustenance of this institution--such men as Judge Greene and T. M. Sinclair and John Ely.  Joe McCabe astutely portrayed the man in his eulogy on the occasion of Robert Armstrong's death: 

In this city, he was Mr. Downtown. No name compares with Armstrong in the growth and development of downtown Cedar Rapids. He was chairman or president of every major board or organization that worked for the betterment of the city. Only of him could the Gazette carry the simple headline: "Goodbye, Robert Armstrong."

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