Thom Armstrong: Building a better Barstow
Barstow Community College President Thom Armstrong is the eldest of four kids (three boys and one girl) and grew up in the small town of Camas, Wash. — also home town of pop and rock-and-roll singer Jimmie Rodgers who had such hits as "Honeycomb."
The economic vitality of the community was dependent upon the Crown Zellerbach paper mill, at the time the largest specialty paper mill in the world. His father was one of the many people who worked for Crown Z.
“While we lived ‘in town,’ both sets of my grandparents lived in the country on farms,” he said. “My childhood was one of spending a lot of time outdoors with my brother and friends tromping through the forests and pastures, hunting, fishing, camping, swimming, and attending Little League baseball games, among other things.”
In the middle of the seventh grade, the family moved across the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon. Armstrong’s father had left the paper mill and was pursuing a secondary teaching certificate, while his mother, who had worked as a waitress, went to work for Fred Meyer, a large Portland-based chain store.
Armstrong graduated from John Marshal High School in 1969, and then attended Portland State University, where he was very involved in student government and Model United Nations.
“I volunteered for a lot of political campaigns during these years,” he said. “In 1973, I graduated with my baccalaureate degree in history and political science. Having worked as a salesman at Nordstrom, Inc., to help put myself through school, I stayed on as a department buyer/manager for Nordstrom's at various stores in the Portland area for approximately five years.”
Armstrong also had the opportunity to travel around the U.S. on several occasions with an old friend from high school days, and spent eight months traveling in Europe with the same friend.
He eventually went back to Portland State University as a post-baccalaureate and acquired a teaching certificate in secondary social studies.
“I ended up getting a teaching job in history and geography at Neil Armstrong Jr. High School in Forest Grove, Ore., in the same district where my father worked as a high school history teacher, and where I met my future wife, Cheryl, who worked at two elementary schools as a music specialist,” he said. “In June 1979, Cheryl and I were married, and I quit my teaching job to go back to PSU to work on my M.A. degree in history, while Cheryl continued to work full-time as a music teacher in Beaverton, Ore.”
In June 1981, his first son Nathan was born. Armstrong completed his M.A. and moved to Santa Barbara to pursue a Ph.D. in history.
“Having passed my exams and being advanced to candidacy for my degree (while working on my dissertation), I was aware of the horrible job market for historians in higher education,” he said. “I decided to apply for a community college position at Palo Verde College in Blythe and was hired as an instructor of history, political science and sociology ...”
While in Blythe, their second son, Zachary, was born and after four years at Palo Verde College, Armstrong took a position as a professor of history at El Camino College for five years. From there, he worked for four years as a dean of behavioral and social sciences at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore.
In 1997, he moved to Claremont to serve as vice president of instruction for seven years at Citrus College in Glendora and then the second superintendent/president of Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree.
Since then, he has served as the interim vice president of academic affairs and acting vice president of student affairs at Barstow Community College for approximately eight months. In June 2009, he became president/superintendent of Barstow Community College.
“Over the years, I have been involved in and held leadership roles in various professional and community organizations,” he said. “I have felt that attempting to promote student success while working in the community colleges in various capacities has been a calling, and has given me tremendous career satisfaction. My wife Cheryl is at the time working at developing her cheesecake business, Tante Cheri. My eldest son Nathan, a graduate of UCSB, is pursuing his entertainment dream in New York City. My youngest son Zach, a graduate of Boston University, is applying to secure a secondary English teaching position. My wife and I reside in Barstow.”
Q: Describe a special memory you have in the High Desert.
A: The moment that I was offered the position to become Barstow Community College's next president/superintendent.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: When I am able to devote time to non-business-related activities, I like to travel, hike, camp, fish, read and write history, spend time at my "ranch" in the Antelope Valley with my dog Dodger, and visit with friends and family.
Q: Tell us one thing that most people don't know about you.
A: My paternal grandmother was a "Real" McCoy.
Q: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
A: Eliminate, or at least dramatically reduce, the conditions that require nations to spend so much money on weapons of war and destruction and divert those funds to improving the standard of living and quality of life for all peoples of the world.
Q: If you could change one thing about the High Desert, what would it be?
A: Help instill the realization in more people, insiders and outsiders alike, that there are a lot of very good people in this community who are committed to making the Barstow area a better place to live and work.
Q: What person, living or from history, would you most like to have dinner with and why?
A: Thomas Jefferson. He was a man of enormous intellect and learning, and one who played such a profound role in the philosophical and political development and identity of this country. While a product of his time with respect to such issues as slavery, he nonetheless was a great visionary who struggled with the contradiction of what was and what should be.
Q: Who is someone who had a big influence on your life?
A: Collectively, the many members of my "extended" family while growing up.
Q: What talent do you most wish you had?
A: Artistic talent, such as the ability to sing, play an instrument, or paint well. I appreciate greatly these talents while I do not, unfortunately, possess them.
Q: What is your favorite quotation?
A: From my paternal grandmother: "It's a great life if you don't weaken."
Q: What words of advice do you have for the next generation?
A: If you have a dream, then follow it for as long as it makes sense to do so. While some people seem to luck out and are able to succeed (however one defines success) with seemingly little effort, the vast majority of us achieve what we do through hard work, perseverance, and sheer tenacity. Another reality is that most of the meaningful jobs of the future with career potential will require post-secondary education and/or training. If you are in high school, stay there. If you have graduated from high school, work with your educational professionals to help lay out an educational or training pathway that will help you achieve the career you desire.
Q: Tell us about the charities or causes that are close to your heart and why.
A: There are so many charities and causes that I believe to be important or have value. I believe that it is incumbent upon all of us to give back to society, and to support those groups that are seeking to improve the lives of others. Some of them have to do with religion or religious-related activities, others pertain to wildlife and the environment, some involve social justice and support for humanity, and others seek to preserve our historical or cultural heritage. Some of the causes and charities that I support include: Twin Rocks Friends Camp and Conference Center, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Friends Service Committee, World and National Wildlife Federations, National Parks Conservation Society, Archaeological Conservancy, Civil War Trust, Smithsonian Institution, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and various history societies. Local organizations to which I belong or support include: Barstow College Foundation, Optimists, Mojave River Valley Museum, and Barstow PAL.
Q: What is something you are particularly proud of?
A: During my time at Barstow Community College as president/superintendent, I am particularly proud of the role that I played in helping to bring about the establishment of the Career Education and Workforce Development Center on State Street. The purpose of this facility is to house the evolving career and technical education programs that enable students to be trained, and workers to be re-trained, for good-paying jobs that help to enable them to support themselves and their families. The program provides training for the highly-skilled workforce that will meet the needs of business and industry, thus promoting the economic development of the greater Barstow region.
This accomplishment could not have come about without the cooperation and vision of Michael Lewis, owner of the building, Mike Hayhurst, the superintendent of Excelsior Public Charter Schools, who saw the value of this partnership with Barstow Community College, and the talented and dedicated college personnel, Ken Eaves, dean of workforce and economic development, and Sandi Thomas, director of career and technical education, who have been the driving force in overseeing program development, writing grants, and establishing the partnerships with business, industry, K-12 districts, organizations, and agencies to bring all of this to fruition.
Finally, much is owed to the committed members of the Barstow Community College board of trustees and the Excelsior Public Charter Schools board of education, who recognized how important this program and this facility could be to the workforce and economic development of the High Desert region.
Q: What is your favorite movie and why?
A: “The "Sound of Music.” As evil was descending upon Europe just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, this movie portrays people who are honorable and would rather leave their beloved country than succumb to being a part of the evil that will no doubt envelope them if they stayed. It is a movie about hope and inspiration, even when things seem to be increasingly bleak. Also, the music is superb!
Q: Tell us about your favorite thing about living in the High Desert?
A: Knowing so many good and dedicated people who are trying to make their community a better place.
Q: What is the best thing about your job?
A: Those times when one senses that one has helped to some extent in moving the college to a higher level of service to students and the community, such as creation of the Career Education & Workforce Development Center.
Q: What book had a significant impact on you?
A: As an historian, there are many books that have been very significant to me; however, Martin Gray's, “For Those I Loved” stands out for me. A true story of a survivor of the Holocaust who loses most all of his family, is also an account of a man who survived and escaped from extermination camps, fought in the battle of the Warsaw Ghetto, and miraculously survived the war. Eventually, he married and had children, only to lose them in a fire. This is history from an emotional and real-life perspective. It is a tragic story but one that is also inspirational.
Q: Of all the places you've been, what's your favorite and why?
A: This is the most difficult question that has been asked. I have a lot of "favorite" places; however, if I were to choose one, I would say Arches National Park in Utah. I have been there during the heat of summer, and camped there in winter when it was 9 degrees. I was there with an old friend when I was quite young — and in much better shape — and we hiked all over the place and enjoyed it greatly. It was a special time in my life.
Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
A: I have seen quite a bit of Europe, but I would also like to go back and see eastern Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, the Balkan Republics, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Sicily, and Ireland. These are areas that have an historic and cultural interest to me. There are, of course, other places in the world that I would like to see, too, but those will have to keep.
Q: Tell us about one thing you want to accomplish in life.
A: Sort through all kinds of family and personal memorabilia and make some sense of it, as well as to tackle weeding out my book collection, which is something not easy for an historian to do.
Q: What's your favorite place to eat in the High Desert?
A: Aside from eating my wife's cooking at home, I would say Idle Spurs Restaurant. I like Dinapoli's, too.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
A: Hopefully, above ground.
Q: What's your favorite guilty pleasure?
A: Eating too much food that I like.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say?
A: "It's a great life if you don't weaken!"