What rare good fortune for any of us to have in our lives a person who’s both a towering hero to us, and at the same time a friend. That’s who Bill Armstrong was to me for more than 40 years.
Colorado Christian University’s president since 2006 and Colorado’s U.S. senator from 1979 to 1991, Armstrong died on July 5th at age 79 after a battle with cancer. Words can’t express my sense of loss when the sad news came, or the depth of gratitude that I feel for having known him.
Bill and I first met in late 1972 by the introduction of my step-uncle, state Republican chairman Dwight Hamilton. We were two rising young conservatives feeling our way to the balance between patriotic idealism and political practicality — he a newly elected congressman from Arapahoe, Douglas, and El Paso counties, I a speechwriter for President Nixon. His warm likability – the rarest gold in politics – captivated me immediately.
As the decades unrolled and his rise far outstripped mine, I lucked into the best job of my life for seven years as vice president of public policy in Armstrong’s cabinet at CCU in Lakewood. His vision for the university’s second century included not only a drive for academic excellence, but also a bold witness for America’s founding principles in the public square.
In that spirit, I was tasked with creating Centennial Institute, a policy think tank, and the Western Conservative Summit, the biggest annual rally on the right outside Washington, D.C. Bill was the fount of big ideas and the sparkplug of irrepressible enthusiasm; I was the implementer. We had some great adventures along the way, prior to my retirement at the end of 2015 and his worsening illness this spring.
It was Jeff Hunt, my successor at the Institute, who called with word of our friend’s passing. After the shock subsided, I wrote this on Facebook:
Bill Armstrong was America’s greatest living Christian statesman. It’s fitting that his last night on earth was Independence Day, for he lived our country’s founding principles as few others have. Bill was a giant in Colorado politics for the past half-century and became a giant in higher education in leading CCU to greatness over the past decade. He won many to the evangelical faith, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, though his winsome witness and contagious joy. No one was a truer friend to me, or a more valued mentor and senior partner in the great cause of God and country. How we loved him. How we will miss him.
Talking with Fox 31 a bit later, I said it seems to me that Armstrong’s gift of leadership was a perfect blend of executive vision, personal magnetism and inspirational example. Here was a truly great soul, a man fully alive. His optimism, expansiveness, and high spirits were infectious. He made you feel like the most important person in his day, no matter how busy a day it was. We all got a lift from being around him. We would have followed him anywhere.
Then the TV reporter asked if Bill’s zeal for a biblical standard of right and wrong sometimes put Armstrong the elder statesman, Armstrong the philanthropist and Armstrong the Christian educator behind the times in the culture wars. Was he too rigid in his view of truth? I said that for Bill, as I knew him, neither truth nor love was time-bound. He had a way of factoring both into the positions he took. His integrity never wavered, but neither did his kindness. Opponents can attest to it.
That balance was Bill’s signature throughout a long and brilliant career in politics, business, education, media and ministry. After I launched the Independence Institute, one of the country’s first state-based conservative think tanks, in the mid-80s with his quiet assistance (which included nominating me for a presidential appointment from Reagan), advisors to my long-shot candidacy for governor in 1990 pleaded: “John, your hardline stance on the right will sink us unless you can learn the Armstrong knack of saying hard things in a soft way.”
I worked on it, but the warning proved out: I sank. Bill stood by me that year when few others did. He was there again when one of my kids needed career advice about getting started in finance in 1994. And again when my sunken political fortunes refloated with a mid-term state Senate appointment in 1998. His son Wil (with an eminent father’s discreet coaching) managed my re-election to that seat in 2000.
The debt Donna and I owe that all-American family would fill volumes. So would our affection for every one of them, especially Bill’s true love of 53 years, Ellen. So does our determination to keep alive the William L. Armstrong legacy by endeavoring to live even half as nobly as he did.
I had a glowing half-hour with Bill and Ellen at their home in Cherry Hills on June 14. Hospice care had begun, and the ravages of illness were in his face, but that amazing breadth of mind and buoyancy of spirit were undiminished. He spoke of his yardstick for the things we had worked on together — that our political and cultural undertakings would always remain “vulcanized” inseparably to our Christian faith. He asked me to read aloud from Matthew 28, the great commission Jesus gave his followers to take the gospel to the nations. It was a sacred time.
At the CCU cabinet table when memorializing one of his countless friends among the great and famous — or among the humble and obscure, it didn’t matter which — President Armstrong unfailingly cited King David’s benediction in Psalm 116, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” I cite it now as the best valedictory for the man himself, the Bill Armstrong I knew.