The Never-ending Story of Bill Armstrong
By David Olan
It was Jan. 18, 1915, Woodrow Wilson was president. World War I was raging on three continents. President Woodrow Wilson’s first grandchild was born in the White House. In Chicago, 1,500 unemployed people demanding “jobs not alms” were met with police resistance when marching in the streets. And Bill Armstrong was born in Seattle.
On Jan. 31, 2015, my family and I had the pleasure to join approximately 200 people celebrating Bill Armstrong’s 100th birthday. It was a perfect Malibu day. Bill was – as he always seems to be – enjoying the day, chatting with family and friends, telling stories, and joining in to sing “God Bless America” with partygoers. It was the contentment of a man whose life has been “well-lived.”
Bill likes to say that his grandfather followed Abraham Lincoln from Kentucky to Illinois, where the family patriarch bought a coal mine. When Bill’s parents married, they moved to Seattle.
When Bill was still a boy, his father died. His mother moved the family to Long Beach, California, where he still remembers seeing president-to-be, Herbert Hoover, campaigning.
Bill was very proud that his father had been a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I. At this time there were quite a few Civil War veterans in Long Beach. Bill tells the story of how one day a vet approached him and told him that when the vet was about Bill’s age he met a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Bill stops for a moment, shakes his head, and says, “Just goes to show how young this nation is.”
The family soon moved to Santa Monica, where Bill graduated from Lincoln Junior High School and Santa Monica High School. His first job was at the age of 15 as a box boy at Ralph’s at Third Street and Wilshire Boulevard. After attending Santa Monica City College, Bill went to the University of Arizona. He then returned to Southern California to earn a bachelor of arts degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.
It was in a geology class at UCLA that Bill met the love of his life, Virginia. They married Dec. 31, 1938. Bill went to work at various aviation and research facilities in the days when Los Angeles was the aviation capital of the country.
In 1950, Bill and Virginia bought a 1948 beach house with a 10-party phone line on Latigo Shore Drive. In those years, that was out in the country. The Armstrongs paid $13,500 for the beachfront cottage. At the time Bill wanted to buy the lot next door. He figures it would have gone for about $7,000, but he waited 15 years and then bought it for $70,000.
Bill and Virginia had three children: Lea Anderson, Lani Netter, and Alan Armstrong. At that time there was a stable on the property (and Bill insisted on mucking out the stalls for “exercise”), so the kids grew up riding horses on the beach and in the hills, swimming, surfing, bicycling, and making their own fun since Alan says there were only about 10 kids who lived in the area. Sometimes Bill would dive for their supper – lobster and abalone – wearing a wool sweater instead of a wet suit. According to Alan, their childhood was idyllic, like living in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Bill still lives in that beach cottage, and Alan and his wife, Diana, live in the stunning wood and glass home next door to Bill. Unfortunately, Virginia passed on a few years ago at the age of 95. In-between the two homes is a red caboose the family restored and a familiar landmark overlooking the point at Latigo.
In 1965, Virginia opened a private school, Carden Malibu School, on Las Flores Canyon Road. She ran the school for 35 years while Bill did the school’s finances. Granddaughter Sunshine Armstrong revived the family business by opening Malibu Under the Oaks Preschool on the Armstrong school property in March 2014.
After family, Bill’s love is the classic luxury car, the Pierce-Arrow. He’s had many through the years, and still has a 1918 Pierce-Arrow Touring Car and a 1924 Pierce-Arrow Roundabout Roadster.
If you attend the Malibu Fourth of July Parade, you have seen Bill and his Pierce-Arrow in the parade. Every year the family decorates the car and rides in the parade. Last year there was a slight change. Bill and his Pierce-Arrow were still in the parade, but three female World War II veterans, one of whom also was a United States Marine and had a tour in Iraq, were his honored guests.
If you watched the parade in the late 80s and early 90s, you might also have seen Bill’s classic fire engine that was one of 10 purchased by the City of Los Angeles in 1921. Bill donated the rig to The Los Angeles County Fire Museum in 1998.
Community is a big part of Bill’s life. He has been an active member of the Malibu Optimists Club for almost 35 years, and he still attends weekly meetings. In January, the club hosted a special breakfast program to celebrate this centenarian’s first century. Mark Ball presented Bill with a cake that featured an icing photo of a 1926 Pierce-Arrow, one of Bill’s favorite cars, and the words “100 Years of Optimism – Happy 100th Birthday, Bill!” The club made a $100 donation to the Optimist Youth Home in honor of Bill, and it established a $1,000 annual college scholarship in Bill’s name.
Phil Gajic tells a story that demonstrates how Bill gets things done when he’s a mind to. Bill was perturbed that the bus stop was moved down and across Pacific Coast Highway. One day a city planner came to deliver a talk at the club. A couple of weeks later, the bus stop was moved back to where it had been. Bill did not ride the bus, but he was worried about those who did.
There is no end to the story of Bill Armstrong. He will live in smiles and actions of the many family members and friends whose lives he has influenced. Bill would brush these words away. I can hear him now telling me that he is busy planning his 101st party and asking me if I want to come. Bill, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.