By Kevin Wilson
Warren Armstrong, Eastern New Mexico University’s sixth president, died Friday morning at his home in Oklahoma.
Armstrong was the president at ENMU from 1975 through 1983, at which point he accepted the same position at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan.
“We’ve had seven and a half very, very good years in Portales and we will always have good feelings about Eastern New Mexico University,” Armstrong said in a March 20, 1983, Portales News-Tribune article after he accepted the position at WSU.
Armstrong came to Portales from St. Cloud, Minn., in 1975 after five years at St. Cloud State University. He was the dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at St. Cloud and was previously the associate dean of arts and sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.
During his eight years at ENMU, Armstrong had goals of improving the quality of the faculty, the campus and the university policies. Bob Matheny, who succeeded Armstrong as ENMU president, felt Armstrong’s groundwork made the job of his successors easier.
“Armstrong’s years were policy development years,” Matheny said. “Those don’t make the newspapers.”
The most noticeable change to the university is visible at the center of the campus. Matheny said before Armstrong arrived, the center of the campus was mainly used for parking. Now, the campus center is marked by a fountain and a landscaped area.
“He established landscaping as a priority and a lot of the appearance of the campus comes from his values,” said Everett Frost, who followed Matheny as president.
Armstrong’s feeling, Matheny said, was that the campus was a reflection of a university’s commitment, and, “if we didn’t look first-class, people wouldn’t perceive us that way.”
Frost viewed Armstrong as a great mentor during his time as an administrator, before his decade-long term as president.
“I think in the way he administered, he taught me a number of things about what a university is and how to administer it,” Frost said. “He thought of it as an open marketplace of ideas.”
Other improvements Armstrong made included more stringent adherence to due process and affirmative action, and a tenure system that required teachers to continue researching their field of study to keep an edge.
“I think it ultimately improved the quality of our faculty in terms of hiring and making that commitment of tenure,” Matheny said. “It was no longer easy to get tenure. I joked that I wouldn’t have been able to get tenure when Armstrong came.”
Despite the high standards for the university, Matheny said Armstrong was not hard to work under due to what he called consultative administrative management.
“He allowed his administrators to do their jobs and held them accountable for it,” Matheny said. “It was wonderful to work at ENMU during those years.”
Vern Witten, who taught mathematics at ENMU from 1964 to 1991, said that Armstrong could relate to the faculty, and his decisions were respected throughout the campus.
“His accomplishments have become a part of ENMU’s legacy,” Witten said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. The faculty that served under his presidency consider him the best of all the ENMU presidents.”
Current ENMU president Steven Gamble said he wishes he had the opportunity to meet Armstrong after hearing his successors speak of him.
“It is obvious that he laid the foundation for a very strong institution,” Gamble said. “Those still at Eastern who knew Dr. Armstrong are always positive about his contribution to ENMU.”
Armstrong retired from WSU in 1993 after 10 years as president. Specific accomplishments during the Armstrong administration at WSU include the tripling of sponsored research activities and the addition of 367,000 square feet of new facilities.
One of his most famous decisions at WSU was also viewed as its most disappointing by many — the decision to eliminate football in 1986. Growing debt in athletics led administrators to make this move, but news releases from WSU say the matter is still a source of controversy.
Following his retirement, Armstrong — who had a Ph.D in history from the University of Michigan — dedicated more time researching the Civil War. Armstrong taught a class on the war and published a book titled “For Courageous Fighting and Confident Dying: Union Chaplains in the Civil War.”
Armstrong would have turned 71 on Oct. 16. A release from WSU said that Armstrong had been having health problems for the last several months.
Services are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. (CDT) Tuesday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Miami, Okla. He is survived by his wife, Joan.