Forrest Harrell Armstrong

Forrest Harrell Armstrong

Died December 5, 2000

Forrest Armstrong spent his life in academia – but not in an ivory tower. As he put it, “the university seeks . . . to become a part of the world rather than apart from it.” “Done well,” he wrote, “the undergraduate experience will help student(s) develop the capacity to continue learning outside formal education and structures to adapt, innovate and address changing circumstances throughout life.” His wife Dorothy says that he “was very committed to education and profoundly grateful to Yale for preparing him.”

Forrest and Dorothy Ciner (Wheaton ’65) dated from sophomore year on and were married in Dwight Memorial Chapel the day after graduation – “before our friends could scatter,” she says. “Neither of us had a job nor a place to live but a profound belief that we would be fine.” They were. Twenty-five years later, Forrest wrote in the 1990 Yale classbook, “my life has been quite smooth. . . Each stage in my education, personal life and career has helped me move naturally into its successor.”

Forrest earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan. For his thesis, entitled George C. Wallace: Insurgent on the Right, Forrest traveled with Wallace on a campaign swing, overcoming the candidate’s oft-stated dislike of “pointy-headed intellectuals.” “Wallace was both interested in his work and wanted to have a copy of the final product,” Dorothy says.

At the same time, he joined a small team designing a new University of Wisconsin campus at Green Bay where he remained for 12 years as a member of the faculty. In 1980, he and Dorothy and their two children, Forrest II and Allison, moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was dean of William James College, one of five semi-autonomous colleges on the Grand Valley State University campus. “Helping students become liberally educated is the most important place I know to invest my life,” he wrote. “I found I was good at academic administration and enjoyed it thoroughly.”

After ten years at Grand Valley, Forrest wrote, “I’m now ready to accept responsibility for a complete institution by serving a good liberal arts college as its president or provost. As a two career family, though, it is terribly hard to make a move that will serve both partners well.” Forrest, however, was diagnosed that year with cancer. Surgery seemed to work, but the cancer returned in 1995 at which time Forrest chose to resign as Dean of Arts and Humanities but continued to teach full time.

In 1998, the Armstrongs purchased a second home in Estes Park, CO, and that was where Forrest chose to spend the final months of his life, making phone calls to colleagues at Grand Valley up until the morning of his death on December 5, 2000. His first grandchild, Claire Elizabeth, was born to Allison five months before he died. Allison now has a second daughter, Libby, and has made a conscious decision to raise the girls in ways consistent with Forrest’s values.

Forrest was a founding member of the Association of Integrative Studies. In 2011, the 33rd annual conference was hosted by Grand Valley State and dedicated in his honor. The introductory essay reviewed Forrest’s educational philosophy and included this quotation: “My educational philosophy springs from three central tenets: 1) that ideas are of profound importance in our lives; 2) that our lives ought to be guided by the understanding of moral and ethical principles which can come from a liberal education; and 3) that our lives ought to be directed toward the service of society, in recognition of the linkages among us.”

Robert Baker remembers: I knew Forrest from our freshman year, through Yale, and after Yale as we both established careers. He was always thoughtful. His life after Yale was in higher education at universities in Wisconsin and Michigan. He was an outstanding teacher as evidenced by his ability to teach my wife to drive a car after I had failed at that task. Forest’s life was ended much too early by cancer.