Dr. Louis E. Armstrong

Some buildings and an expanse of lawn on the campus of my high school alma mater, Indian Springs School, have been officially named for an educator who changed my life when I was a teenager. I had several such pivotal influences during my high school years, teachers who have had comparable impacts on me throughout my adult years. Dr. Louis E. Armstrong was first in line.

Everybody called him “Doc.” He was happy with that. The loftier title Headmaster was not in his lexicon; he was the school's Director.

I wasn’t able to attend the recent naming ceremonies for the "Armstrong Administration Building" and the “Armstrong Green.” But as images from my past, they are etched in my mind indelibly.

I walked many times across that well-tended grass on my way to Doc’s office, whose door was always open to me and other students from the time I arrived at ISS as a freshman. Our conversations about my creative dreams, the proper role of education, and sometimes the meaning of life helped steer me on the course my grown-up years were destined to take.

Doc was an educational visionary, and anyone who cares can discover why I say that can read about the goals he set for Indian Springs in this account on the ISS web site.

But my mind today is on what Doc was like as a human being. And what has led my mind to be on that track at this particular time, these 52 years after my graduation, is a portrait of the man that my classmate Lem Coley recently sent to Doc’s daughter Kay, who in turn has given me permission to share it here.

Lem wrote:

“What stays with me about Doc is that he always seemed to be himself. Not necessarily spontaneous--as Sammy's stories showed, he might approach a student from a carefully thought thru position, but it was his. In those days headmasters (and I saw a few) were consumed by their role--whether they tried to cultivate a mystique of omniscience, or were more refined versions of Sinclair Lewis' George F Babbitt who wore a button on his lapel saying "Boosters--PEP." 

“The boys and the school were always at the center of Doc's consciousness, but he never glad-handed or tried to give students, parents or trustees a snow job. He operated from a high level (high in the sense of seriousness, ethics, democratic values, the importance of the individual) and brought you into it. But he was never pompous; as Aristotle recommends, he thought like a philosopher and spoke in the language of ordinary people. He believed everybody would operate like that if given the opportunity. He made philosophical topics--perception, ethics, metaphysics--immediate and connected to us.

“But I'm also just talking about little things: if he was bored or irritated, or amused, he showed it. If he thought people were bloviating at a town meeting, he would look off and frown. When he was glad to see you or you said something he thought was funny, he grinned; when you were in trouble, big thunderclouds rolled up. But none of that was filtered through some official headmaster manner. He was person-to-person with you but never trivial, didn't have much small talk--those beady vigilant eyes in the top corner of the socket, glaring out like a hawk.

“So important because we were the Holden Caulfield generation--everybody at Springs read that book, not for class, for us. A headmaster who wasn't as phony as we were. That was amazing. 

“Once I was climbing onto a top bunk in a dorm room and an exposed bolt knocked a hole in my shin. I saw white bone, then the hole filled with blood. I yelled; no one around. Suddenly Doc stuck his head in, saw my leg, grabbed me and in 2 seconds we were headed for a...what? clinic? doctor's office in Alabaster? It was taken care of. There was just something so immediate, human, alert, engaged about his response, and he always seemed that way. 

“I wonder now about that Okie accent of his, which we used to mimic: "waal, Lam.” Did he choose not to attempt the tweedy, preppy tone aspired to by other heads? Or, more likely, did he never even think about it.

“He told us he had planned to be a "tennis bum" until he ran into Bill Tilden at the Southwest tournament (a big tournament in those days). He said Tilden moved him around at will and he decided he needed something else to do. Guess there was more to it than that. 

“The campus then was so flat and treeless, almost empty compared to now; you could see him a long way off. I see him in my mind striding across the grass, those long arms with that straight pendular swing, pipe in hand, head down. Even if we couldn't see his face, we knew he was thinking seriously about us, the school, working something out in his mind, while jaunty little Pal trotted along behind with his head up.” 

I wrote about Doc myself in an essay of mine that was published in Mike Winchell’s 2016 anthology Been There Done That: School Daze. I wrote:

“Philosophical inquiries were among Doc’s favorite pastimes, and he especially enjoyed engaging in them with the school’s teenaged population. He saw that as a good way to open young minds to new ways of looking at life.

“Doc and I had bonded from my earliest days at the school. He found my cartooning ambitions a refreshingly novelty and encouraged me to let my satirical impulses roam free. This was true even when he was my target, as he often was in cartoons I drew for the student newspaper

“Spoofing Doc was easy because of the unique figure he cut as an educator. He was a tall, portly, big-boned, balding, pipe-puffing, charismatic visionary whose brilliance was obvious even though he spoke in a rural Oklahoma drawl.

“In or out of the classroom, Doc was likely to prod students into conversations about topics we had never seriously considered, like the nature of democracy or the essentials of civic responsibility. For a teenager like me he was an inspiring presence.

“His role as a mentor didn’t stop me from making fun of him, though….”

In the course of covering the naming ceremony for the Shelby County Reporter, journalist Stephen Dawkins shared an anecdote that was recounted by another classmate of mine, Frank Samford III (known as “Sammy” Samford to all of us back in the day). It's a story that exemplifies Doc’s commitment to active participation by the students in all governing decisions at the school—even on those occasions when we students bit the hand that educated us. 

Dawkins wrote:

“Samford told how students during his time at the school questioned the implementation of rules about student life without consulting students first, as was required by school policy.

“Samford said Armstrong admitted the mistake and pledged it would not happen again—and opined that such a resolution would not have occurred at “any private school other than Indian Springs.”

“‘Next to my parents, he was the most important adult in my life,’ Samford said.”

Howard Cruse
(Posted July 4, 2017)

Above: a cartoon I drew as a gift to Doc at the time of his retirement. The fact that he is lobbing apples in the picture instead of tennis ball refers to “Knowledge and Apples,” a pamphlet he wrote expounding his educational philosophy in simple language (see below). I was thrilled when he asked this 14-year-old aspiring cartoonist to illustrate his words.

The felt-tip ink with which I wrote labels for the various smashed apples in the picture have faded, so I’ll help you read them. The conceptual apples Doc was lobbing are “great ideas”; “intellectual propositions”; “pungent paradoxes”; “comparative linguistics”; “geopolitics”; “economic theory”; and “nuclear physics.”