Friday, January 12, 2007

"the king" passes - Death of David Armstrong

Photo: Southern Lawns, Booloominbah, University of New England. David Armstrong requested that his ashes be scattered here or at the adjoining deer park.

The end of 2006 saw the death of David Armstrong, one of New England's more colourful characters whose life was marked by passion and controversy as well as great achievement. I did not really know David, so the story that follows is drawn especially from Roy Masters' obit in the SMH (11 January).

David Patrick Armstrong was born in Bingara in 1941, son of Gywdir and Joan and grew up there with his parents and younger brothers Dennis and Ron. Roy records that while Dad Gwydir was named after the river, he was better known by the nickname "Ceidle", the name of the Lebanese haberdasher who visited Bingara by horse drawn cart. Gwydir acquired this name because he used to chase after the cart and be rewarded with a biscuit.

David started at the University of New England as a student in 1959, probably one of the first students from Bingara, studying there until 1961. I have described the intensity of UNE campus life during the fifties and sixties in a number of posts on this and my personal blog - too many to list here. Certainly David enjoyed himself, acquiring the nickname "the king".

In 1962 David joined the University's Department of Continuing Education. Reflecting the interests of the University's founders as well as the passions of early staff, New England had established a strong track record in adult and continuing education.

David acquired this passion for adult education, a passion that was to continue for all his adult life. One of his innovations while at Armidale was the creation of a radio farm forum educating 600 Northern Tableland farmers through radio and weekly tutorials.

After five years at New England, David moved to Toronto in Canada to further his studies in adult education. Upon completion of his PhD, he was appointed in 1972 at age 30 as director of the Prahan College of Advanced Education in Melbourne.

He described Prahan as "run down" and claimed to have turned it around. Indeed he did, although Roy Masters refers somewhat tartly to David's "fondness for self-aggrandisement", his capacity for presenting himself as larger than life.

Some time during this earlier period David married Valmai and had two children, Mark and Sally. This marriage broke up. David remarried Virginia Henderson, who Roy notes became central to the most volatile periods in David's life.

Along with Don Chipp, Armstong and Henderson conceived the idea of the Australian Democrats, officially formed in 1977 at the Melbourne home of Sid Spindler. Virginia Henderson became the Party's first campaign director, while David Armstrong wrote Don Chpp's campaign speech and acted as his adviser.

In 1980 Virginia and David moved to Sydney as chief of the Australian Bicentennial Authority under the chairmanship of John Reid, also chair of James Hardy. This marked the start of a difficult period for David.

There were tensions between David and the Authority Board. In 1986 he was sacked by the Board; one reason given was that he spent to much time out of the country. Virginia and David's marriage broke up. Then in December 1987, twelve months after the couple separated, Virginia married John Reid. David was bitter, although he was overjoyed when he saw how much of his original program was retained in the Bicentenary program.

In 1987 David was appointed CEO of Community Aid Abroad, a position he held until 1992, more than quadrupling the organisation's annual budget. David then spent four years working for the University of Melbourne first as director of the University's International Office and then warden of its graduate centre, reversing the declining numbers of international students. This was followed by a period as CEO of St John of God Services Victoria and then a similar position with St Francis of Assisi Aged Care.

Eighteen months ago David had a stroke, restricting his activities. However, he and Virginia were reunited after she and John Reid divorced, spending his last Christmas with she and son Luke.

In his final letter returning to his New England roots, David wrote: "At a convenient time, the ashes should be scattered on the southern lawn of 'Booloominbah" or in the deer park."

Looking at David's career as a whole, the boy had come a long way from his Bingara roots. As Roy notes, while David's most public post - CEO of the Bicentenial Authority - was a failure, his major contributions to adult education and education, to politics and the community sector went largely unseen.


David Donaldson said...

Not to under-rate David's many achievements, it should be noted that the introduction and execution of the radio program within Adult Education/University Extension was the work of John H. Shaw, Senior Lecturer. Shaw had returned from study leave in USA with a bundle of fresh ideas, which he pushed with characteristic energy and persistence. David was at the time a Graduate Assistant, as was I.C. Dunlop who may also have worked on the radio project. It may also have have been supported by Campbell Howard, Assistant Director based at the Tamworth office.
Over that period, I was administrative officer for the department, knowing all of those people well.

David Donaldson said...

And another person concerned may well have been Neville Crew.