"Mr. Alaska": R. Rolland (Army) Armstrong

“No one can count the number of miles Army has traveled to be ‘a presence’ for our Master. No one can number the nights that Katherine spent alone, but we all have experienced the depth of their commitment, the tenderness of their caring and their love of the Christ. Of such is the Kingdom of God.”

Fresh out of Louisville Seminary, Robert Rolland Armstrong went to Hyden, Kentucky and was commissioned by Buckhorn Presbytery as a Sunday School Missionary in October of 1937. In Hyden he met and married Katherine Ratcliff, a nurse in the Frontier Nursing Service. Katherine, born in Minnesota but raised in Colorado, was a willing adventurer--and she needed to be!

From Kentucky, where Army traveled to mission points on horseback and in a coupe named "Priscilla", the couple moved to Michigan and from 1938 to spring of 1940, worked with the old Department of Sunday School Mission to minister to the people “who live at the end of the road.” They reported in a Board of National Missions publication The Highway, that they pulled a rented trailer behind their car so they could make extended visits in communities. When winter came they used snowshoes to make home visits.

Armstrong had been responsible for five counties in Kentucky and that was bad enough, he said in an interview (actually in a recording he made for his family, transcribed by his his granddaughter Cheryl in 1995), but in Michigan he never did cover all of the country that was assigned to him by the Board of National Missions.

"In the spring of 1940, Everett King who had become the superintendent of Alaska and Sunday School missionaries asked us if we would go to Fairbanks," Armstrong told his granddaughter. "It was so urgent that it didn't sound like a request, it was more 'Come and help us, we need you.' So we decided to take on the challenge and sailing from Seattle, we landed in Valdez on May 30, 1940." 

“The Board of National Missions gave us just enough for boat passage and the shipment of the car,” said Armstrong in a sermon preached in Fairbanks on December 7, 1980. Everett King had failed to tell them their salary of $1,600 a year would be raised to $1,800 a year in Fairbanks--in reality a cut in salary. “We arrived in Fairbanks with $10 in our pocket. The Almighty knew our plight even if the Session didn’t know it. A Mrs. Mandigo arranged to have a couple await our arrival for their marriage so that fee helped. It was a welcome $20.” 

It was the beginning of a long career for the man who was for Presbyterians to become "Mr. Alaska."

The Board of National Missions had urged the First Presbyterian Church of Fairbanks to become self-supporting back in 1937. Armstrong arrived in 1940 and by the time he left the church on June 30, 1942, the church had voted to "go off mission support."

"The one big event we had when I was in Fairbanks was that we voted to go independent of the Board of National Missions. This was good for the church. It emboldened them to stand on their own feet, and later on they became a leading light in self-determination as much as you could have within the Presbyterian Church," Armstrong explained.

Daughter Allison was born in Fairbanks on July 11, 1941. 

Armstrong left the Fairbanks church in the fall of 1942 to assume the pastorate of First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage. He was installed as pastor on January 22, 1943. Therefore when daughter Charlene was born August 29, 1943, it was in Anchorage. 

During World War II, the Presbyterian Church in Anchorage was located on Fifth Avenue and was a big draw for soldiers from Ft. Richardson and Elmendorf AFB. Allison and Charlene remember a house full of both civilians and young men in uniform -- women and men, who found a church home at First Presbyterian and came to look on Katherine as “Mom.”

The “old manse” in Anchorage was indeed old and located right next to the church, Allison recalls. Later the family moved to a relatively new house on N Street. On September 6, 1944, Katherine, in a letter to their families in Colorado and Rhode Island, described the housing problem for the crush of people arriving in Anchorage. Of the new Superintendent of Schools, the Minners, who were active in the church she says,

“They have had such difficulty finding a place to live, and Mrs. Minner and Veta Faye are not too happy here--perhaps having a place of their own will help. They have been living in the school until a couple of days ago. The housing situation here is terrific. The government keeps sending in girls (Allison’s note: probably women to fill secretarial jobs with the military and other government agencies) and there is no place for them to live. We have had a good many people sleep in the church offices--on a camp cot.”

In another family letter dated November 6, 1944, Katherine Armstrong describes the life of a pastor’s wife and mother of little girls ages three and one.

“Rev. Mr. (Elmer) Parker, who was visiting here, sipped his tea with considerable noise. Allison looked at him with such a worried expression and said,”We don’t sip.” Imagine our embarassment.

“We had really had a mob--if you could have seen them you wouldn’t be surprised that you had not heard from us--I was so dragged out that I didn’t know which way I was going. Betty (Braun who was Christian Education Director at First Presbyterian) and I had a lovely trip on the Alcan--went with Rev. Mr. Bingle who conducts services at the various camps along the Highway. We were gone for nine days, and went within 150 miles of Whitehorse in Canada. A lady of the congregation kept the children for me. They had started on the new Sunday School building when we left--Red Langley was already here. We ended up in Fairbanks, and flew home from there. When I reached home I found that we had three more houseguests. Gertrude Bechtel was on her way to Fairbanks as Director of Christian Education, and Rev. and Mrs. Parker of Idaho were here on their way to St. Lawrence Island. Gertrude was here for five days and the Parkers were here for over three weeks awaiting transportation. Soldiers were in and out, and staying overnight as they worked on the building. Our meals were really something--from eight to thirteen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All I did was cook. We had no place to keep their clothes or dress, for every place we turned someone was living. The Parkers had our room and we slept on the davenport. They left last Saturday, and we slept in our own bed for the first time in over four weeks. What a life!”

Allison, even though quite young, remembers the evening her father came home after participating in the in-flight memorial service conducted for the thirty passengers and crew members killed in the crash of the Northwest Orient Airlines DC-4 near Anchorage in 1947 or 1948.

She says today, "It is the mix of rite and ritual, death and pathos that tends to stay with us." 

A news article written at the time indicated that the 16,208 foot Mt. Sanford, "The Mountain That Talks", would "have company" and would be the resting place for the 30 passengers and crew members of the plane which crashed into its peak in early March.

Simple, impressive services were read by the Rev. R.R. Armstrong, Presbyterian; Father Dermot O'Flanagan, Catholic; and Lt. Morris Aberman, representing the Jewish faith. The clergymen were aboard a Northwest Orient Airlines plane which circled near the scene of the wreck. As they approached the site of the crash, airline personnel dropped wreathes from the plane, the article related.

During this period, Armstrong also was involved with a radio program each weekday morning called "Family Altar." His daughter recalls that he went to the KFQD studio each morning to do a live meditation about five minutes in length.

Armstrong retained fond memories of his time in the Anchorage church and the colleagues with whom he worked. He wrote in 1952,

"As Anchorage was built from tents to shacks to homes, the church was there. Later as a second world war struck and bombs fell on Alaska a small, husky, fur-clad missionary piled out of his blue sedan to go into a construction camp. As the tractors and road graders slashed through the wilderness of Alaska and Canada, the Rev. Bert J. Bingle followed the progress of the Alcan Highway.

And,

"The former 'ghost town' (Anchorage) had one small struggling congregation. At times the choir was larger than the worshipers. Now with new blood the church is building a new $200,000 anctuary. The old building will become a modern youth center for servicemen and educational unit for the church school. Around this downtown church, two recently organized Presbyterians churches are rebuilding to give themselves more room."

Anchorage Daily Times, March 18, 1974

Former Minister Recalls Town of 1940s

by Maureen Blewett

 R. Rolland Armstrong redrew the map of Anchorage this weekend back to the days of volunteer firemen when a butcher with his apron on would come flying out of Lucky’s Market and leap onto a moving fire engine. In those days, the late Father Warren Fenn (of the Episcopal Church) would always rush to the fire house on F Street and put on the coffee pot, Dr. Armstrong said, chuckling. He was taking a few minutes during the Presbyterian Church’s 75th Anniversary celebration this past weekend to remember Anchorage as it was when he was the church’s pastor here from 1942 to 1950.

“I remember when the first Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis came in -- it must have been the first non-stop -- full of news correspondants and businessmen from Minneapolis. The Presbyterian choir sang for the group.

“Later a correspondant wrote that it was the first time he had ever stood at a bar with a Scotch in his hand and heard a choir -- we were singing in the Aleutian Club.”

“And that upset some of the local people to think that people would read that and get the wrong impression about Anchorage.

“Those were the days when the Parkstrip on Ninth Avenue was out in the country. And the library was on the second floor of the City Hall on Fourth Avenue.

“After much agitation the City Council took over the library from the Women’s Club and finally got a metal Butler Building on Fifth Avenue and E Street and hired a librarian.

“During the war there was a tremendous snarl of the telephone system. You might as well have stood on Fourth Avenue and yelled out to the Base as try to call them on the phones. It was the confusion of a town growing up.

“At one point the church phone got patched into the Columbia Bar phone and it caused some hesitation when a caller trying to reach the bar heard someone answer, 'First Presbyterian Church...'

“In those days there was some anxiety as to how the town was going to grow -- out Spenard Road or out Gambell. Everyone was surprised that it grew as it did without any visible means of support. It just grew up around you.”

There were only six churches in 1942 when Dr. Armsrong and his wife Katherine arrived here--definitely fewer churches than bars. They were the Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, the Church of the Open Door, the Christian Science Church and the Church of God, he remembers. Then came the Baptist Church, the Lutheran Church and the Methodist Church.

Armstrong was appointed to the office of Field Representative for the Board of National Missions for Alaska, with offices in Juneau, on December 8, 1950

("I think the date was December 1949. We moved in February of 1950," Alllsion recalls, "memorable for me because I was in third grade and in Anchorage we had learned addition and subtraction and in Miss Mayberry’s class in Juneau they had already mastered multiplication and were into short division. Give me a break!") .

The family left the warmth of the Anchorage church community, loaded meager possessions, after years in a furnished manse, onto an Alaska Steamship Lines ship, made a stormy crossing of the Gulf of Alaska, and landed in Juneau. No Board of National Missions housing was available so the Armstrongs became first time homeowners. 

"I think it’s fair to say this move to Juneau was fairly sacrificial on Army and Katherine’s part," daughter Allison says today. "I remember the family discussing the move--something I resisted and resented very much at the time. I loved Anchorage and the church home of which I was a part. The folks were clear, however, that they had been in Anchorage long enough. It was Dad’s philosophy that one should not stay in a pastorate too long and that it was time for a new mission. 

In early 1950 when the family left Anchorage, the salary at First Presbyterian was up to $11,000 and the family had a furnished manse on N Street. The new job paid $5,000 plus a small housing allowance. In Anchorage there had been numerous “perks” in a congregation that was growing and increasingly affluent following the war years.

"I remember one shop owner gave Mom a new suit each year," Allison recalls. In 1945 the congregation planned a surprise evening for Army and Katherine and presented them with plane ticket to Seattle for the family and the keys to a 1945 Ford, delivery to be taken in Seattle where the family was to begin its three month “furlough.”

From 1950 to 1956 Army traveled extensively throughout the territory, away from home approximately 3/4 of the time. Katherine was a full partner in the mission and took a nursing job at St. Joseph’s hospital to help support the ministry, says her daughter.

“In Juneau, as in Anchorage,” Allison remembers, “ many people were guests in our home as they moved to and from their mission stations and pastorates in the Yukon and Alaska Presbyteries. Mom’s quiet confidence, good humor and graciousness were constants--a ministry of her own. She continued to work as a nurse for many years in Juneau and in Sitka until Parkinson’s disease disabled her.”

Katherine cooked for church camps, peeled logs and cooked on a camp stove for the work crew while our family lived in tents one summer during the building of the log chapel at Tok Junction.

"In each home our parents made together there was a sign near the fireplace that said, 'I cannot warm thee if thy heart be cold.'", Allison smiles.

In the new job, Army had opportunity to travel throughout the territory, including such places as Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island. A March 24, 1952 news article from that time relates:

"R. Rolland Armstrong, well-known Alaska minister now residing in Juneau as a field representative for Alaska Presbyterian Churches arrived here with the army plane on February 25. He returned to Nome on March 13 after visiting Savoonga Church. He baptized about 35 babies in both villages, and received number of members. The biggest event he said during his visit in Savoonga was the baptism of the twin babies of Mr. and Mrs. Bobbie Kava. Armstrong said he had never baptized twins anywhere.

 "His trip back to Gambell from Savoonga (by dog team) was a bad one. They were lost just before coming into town but made it when they came to the shoreline and followed the beach. Armstrong said the snowstorm is good compared with sandstorm blown off the CAA runway, cutting into their faces. Armstrong was so exhausted that he almost fell to the floor when he came into the kitchen of the manse. Armstrong says, "The last few steps walking from the sled to the house, took all the strength I had left."

Allison adds that her father often told this story of "being lost and then found" -- crediting the skills of the musher who let the dogs have their head once he realized they were lost, but also because the minister felt the hand of God in the trip. "As I recall," Allison added, "whale ribs were used in some places as markers to help guide the mushers. Dad rode on the sled as a passenger."

Armstrong was one of the seven – out of 55 delegates – elected at-large from the whole territory in 1955 to write the Constitution for the State of Alaska. Armstrong, and Presbyterian Elders Maurice Johnson and R.E. Robertson were among those who gave leadership in the formation of the Constitution for the upcoming State of Alaska. The Rev. Roy Ahmaogak, Presbyterian of Wainwright, gave the invocation for the convention. 

A story printed on the front page of the Juneau Empire at the time of Armstrong's death includes the tale of how Army happened to arrive at Constitution Hall in the middle of a debate over whether the word "God" should be included in the preamble to the Constitution.

"I don’t think Dad said a word--he just walked in . His arrival was seen, with considerable humor, as a “sign," says Allison.

He kept the word ‘God’ in the state constitution.

Pastor Robert Rolland Armstrong,

who helped pen the document, dies

by Chris Russ

Robert Rolland Armstrong took time our from his duties as a minister in 1955 to join 54 other elected delegates at the Alaska Constitutional Convention. It was during that year, and after 75 days of labor and deliberation, that the delegation penned the state’s constitution, a document essential to territorial Alaska gaining statehood in 1959.

Armstrong, a Presbyterian minister most of his life, died Dec. 16, 1995 at the New Mexico Medical Center at the age of 85. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the February 5 signing of the document which has remained nearly unchanged since its genesis, said Convention Chief Clerk Katie Hurley. Though the constitution lives on, only 15 surviving members of the original 55 remain.

“He was a good delegate. He stood up for all of things that were right and moral,” said James Doogan, a member of the 55 Club, which got its name from the number of delegates attending.

Doogan, who lives in Fairbanks, recalled a time during the convention when he engaged in a debate with delegate Barrie White over whether or not the word “God” should be in the constitution’s preamble.

The issue didn’t have anything to do with atheism, recalls Doogan. White just didn’t see a necessity in using the word “God.” Armstrong was absent at the start of the debate.

“It got to be quite a debate,” Doogan said. Just when it looked like the word might be omitted, “Armstrong walked in after being stranded by weather in Sitka (Allison’s note: I believe it was Juneau--we were not yet living in Sitka) for three days.

Moments later, the debate was over. The word stayed.

“You just can’t beat him no matter what you do,” Doogan remembered hearing White say moments after the minister walked into the room. On the 74th day of the convention, debates and deliberation were over; yet, some business remained unfinished for Armstrong.

He wanted a pledge made to the children of Alaska. It was at his request that Convention President and former Gov. William Egan appointed Armstrong to a final ad-hoc committee to produce such a document.

According to the official convention transcripts the document reads: You are Alaska’s children. We bequeath to you a state that will be glorious in her achievements, a homeland filled with opportunities for living, a land where you can worship and pray, a country where ambitions will be bright and real, an Alaska that will grow with you as you grow.”

Hurley, who went on to serve in the Legislature, remembers the work of Armstrong and the other delegates.

“It was the greatest gathering of people, who worked unselfishly, that I ever saw,” said Hurley. “They were truly dedicated.”

Armstrong was also dedicated to his ministry. In 1950 he and his wife, Katherine, moved from Anchorage to Juneau, where Armstrong assumed the duties of field representative for the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church. From 1950 to 1956, Alaska was his parish, as he traveled by bus, plane, dog sled, rail car and boat throughout the territory, his family wrote.

Funeral services for Armstrong took place December 19, (1995) in Roswell, New Mexico.

 

Fairbanks News-Miner, Saturday, February 4, 1956

A front page story describes the historic signing ceremony, open to the public, scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 5, 1956 in the university gym. It reads in part,

...Roll call on final adoption of the constitution has been held over until Sunday at 2 p.m. when the public will watch the culmination of the proceedings their representatives took part in.

There are 100 copies of the document to be signed but only one will be signed during the official ceremony. In answer to the roll call, each delegate will walk from his seat at the front of the university gymnasium to a desk at the base of the podium. There will be no lineup. For a historic instant, each man and woman who shaped Alaska’s constitution will stand alone, attesting faith in a statement of fundamentals that was born of unity and constant application.

The signing ceremony will open with the University of Alaska band’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. After convention President William Egan raps his large, ivory gavel to convene the session, an invocation will be delivered by the Rev. John C. Stokes of Fairbanks. The roll call will be taken.

Alaska’s governor, B. Frank Heintzleman will then address those assembled. Following this, the constitution will be officially adopted and signed.

Delegate R. Rolland Armstrong, Presbyterian minister from Juneau, will offer the dedicatory prayer, to be followed by a speech from Egan. The Alaska song will be sung by a Ladd Air Force base choral group and the Rt. Rev. Francis D. Gleeson will follow with the benediction.

The delegates then will adjourn to the Convention Hall to sign additional copies of the constitution and await a 7 p.m. buffet supper in the campus cafeteria, hosted by the president of the university, Ernest Patty.

The convention is a legally authorized body until 10 a.m. Monday. It is believed the delegates will be called into session at 9 a.m. Monday to pass various resolutions.

_______

In 1954 discussions about the future of Sheldon Jackson High School and Junior College in Sitka centered on the possibility of moving Sheldon Jackson to the interior of Alaska and the need to expand college recruitment and programs. 

The decision to leave Sheldon Jackson in Sitka was made and in 1956. Army was asked by the Board of National Missions to become president of Sheldon Jackson High School and Junion College with the mandate of upgrading buildings and expanding programs. 

The Armstrongs moved to Sitka in the summer of 1956. During those years the college was made a separate entity from the high school with separate staff and was accredited by the Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher schools.

"Apparently our parents decision to make the move from Juneau to Sitka was met with a sigh of relief by the Board of National Missions," Allison writes. "I found this letter from Katharine Gladfelter among the papers a couple of days ago. (Handwritten letter from Katharine Gladfelter to Katherine Armstrong, dated February 15, 1956.)"

Dear Katherine,

I do not want to let another day go by without telling you again how deeply thankful I am for your decision to go to Sitka. It was such a temptation to write you when I returned from Puerto Rico but Alec’s good letter had spoken for all of us and I did not want to seem to try any pressure in what was, I knew, a major decision for the family.

And so I waited, in mingled anxiety and hope--sometimes with one emotion on top and sometimes the other--until the welcome news came yesterday morning.

Alec, who saw his copy of Army’s letter first, telephoned around nine o’clock to ask, “Well how does it feel to fall on a foam rubber mattress? I did not click at first and then light dawned and I exclaimed, “You mean the answer is yes!” I think we have all felt more and more as the days went by that you folks are just the ones for that admittedly difficult but challenging post, and we are already looking forward eagerly to the closer relationship with the family. Thank you more than I can say for that “yes.”

Affectionately, Katharine 

The Armstrongs remained in Sitka for a number of years, but in 1965 Katherine was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. It was time to move on in ministry.

Daughter Allison shared a letter her father wrote in 1966 to Elmer Rasmuson, an elder of First Presbyterian Church at the time who had also served with Armstrong on the Board of Trustees for Sheldon Jackson College. In the letter, Armstrong describes the decision to leave Alaska because of his wife Katherine's health.

"I am not closing the doors to Alaska. I must say that you have been most gracious as a friend and associate… I ask that you realize I am leaving a good-size chunk of my heart and life here. We pray this is the right move… I consider your friendship and guidance as one of my Alaskan assets."

During his long career in Alaska, R. Rolland Armstrong also received an honorary doctorate in divinity from Whitworth College (June 22, 1953), and a doctorate in Humane Letters from the University of Alaska (May 28, 1962), “in recognition of his many valuable contributions to Alaska, his outstanding work with young people of the State, and his distinguished career in the ministry and education.”

The Whitworth citation included the words, “Your passion for souls, your missionary statesmanship, your shepherd heart, and your love for all men regardless of race, creed, or color, make you a man among men.”

The Arizona United Presbyterian , a publication of what was then the Synod of Arizona, announced in June of 1966, the appointment of Dr. R. Rolland Armstrong as National Missions field administrator for Northern Arizona Presbytery. In that position most of his work was with the Native population of the northern part of the state but he also worked in all of the phases of national missions in the Presbytery. Army and Katherine lived in Ft. Defiance, Arizona.

From 1972 until his retirement in 1976 Army was consultant in ministry with the Presbytery of Sierra Blanca in south central New Mexico. Katherine’s illness progressed and Army purchased a recreation vehicle so she could be with him in comfort as he traveled on church business.

Words printed in the program for a dinner given by the Synod of the Southwest recognizing the Armstrongs in 1975 are especially touching for Charlene and Allison because they recognize the shared ministry of their parents:

“No one can count the number of miles Army has traveled to be “a presence” for our Master. No one can number the nights that Katheirne spent alone, but we all have experienced the depth of their commitment, the tenderness of their caring and their love of the Christ. Of such is the Kingdom of God."

Katherine died on July 21, 1980.

_______

In February 1981 Rolland and Margaret “Peg” Uber Blackstone, a classmate from Grove City College in Pennsylvania, were married. Peg and Army lived in Roswell, New Mexico, where he served as a minister of visitation for First Presbyterian Church Roswell, and they lived for several months in Silver City, New Mexico where Army was an interim minister. They traveled extensively during the 13 years together, including at least two trips to Alaska.

While his ministry and time in the southwest was nearly as long as the Alaskan years, Allison says, “In the end I think it was the memories of those pioneer years in Alaska that were strongest in Dad’s memory.”

Army and Peg moved to a Roswell retirement home where he remained following her death in August 1994. Rolland Armstrong suffered several strokes in the last few years of his life before his death December 16, 1995. Daughter Charlene, in a tribute to her father said,

“He handled this difficult period (following Peg’s death) with grace and dignity even though Allison and I both knew how difficultit was for him to be by himself. On behalf of the Armstrong family, we are endebted to all of you who have been part of our lives...”

As a final act of stewardship, Rolland Armstrong donated his body to the University of New Mexico Medical School.

At his memorial service in Roswell on Dec. 19, 1995, this prayer was read: 

Eternal and Loving God: we give you thanks for Army Armstrong and for all your faithful people, who have followed your will in a grand procession of praise throughout the world and down through the centuries, into our own time and place. We hear their stories in the pages of scriptures, in the records of history, in the recollections of our families and in our own childhood memories. As we remember them, inspire us by your Spirit to join their company, and follow our Lord throug life, to be as bold as they were, and brave as well, witnessing to your gracious truth and generous love.

Give us grace, that we may leave the same legacy of faithfulness to those who will follow us; through Christ our Lord, Amen.

At the time of his retirement from full time ministry, Katharine Gladfelter of the Board of National Missions wrote,

"I stopped here to think of our association beginning with the day on which I represented Earl Jackman in urging Army to leave the Anchorage church to become supervisor of our mission churches in Alaska. And what experiences that led to as Army travelled his great parish, helped write the Constitution for the new state and became, as far as Presbyterians were concerned, 'Mr. Alaska.'"

The Rev. R. Rolland "Army" Armstrong is survived by daughters Mary Charlene Frederick of Roswell, New Mexico, and Allison Anne Keef and her husband Ralph Keef at RR 3, Box 86, Bangor, Maine 04401, and their children Cheryl Martin and her husband Michael Martin of Stirling, Ontario; Robert Brad Keef of Plano, Texas; and Pamela Jo Keef of Delta Junction, Alaska.

_________

R. Rolland Armstrong