Armstrong: Walk of Heroines honoree

Dr. Alice Armstrong’s Portland home is accented by stained glass detailing, colorful cupboard handles and other artistic touches created by the former Portland State professor. Her foyer showcases a unique spiral light fixture hanging from the ceiling.

“I made that,” she said cheerfully.

In the past, 83-year-old Armstrong’s creativity and innovation has extended outside the home as a pioneer for the progress of women in the business place.

In 1977, Armstrong helped to found the Institute for Managerial and Professional Women in Portland, at the time a unique organization. The Institute focused on supporting women in leadership roles in private and public organizations. Twelve hundred women met at PSU for a conference Dr. Armstrong coordinated in 1977. The avant-garde gathering centered on women in business.

A section of Portland’s Walk of the Heroines, a garden at Portland State that celebrates honored women, is devoted to Armstrong.

Armstrong taught psychology at Portland State from the late 1970s to the 1980s, and returned to Portland last September with her caretaker, Valerie Sherwood, and their two cats. Because of a rule at the time that stated professors could not teach past a certain age, she revealed that she altered the truth so she could continue lecturing. “My classes were always full,” Armstrong noted. She taught mainly about power, particularly the efficacy of intellectual power.

Armstrong learned at a young age the importance of standing her ground. Wimpy children, Armstrong recalled, did not thrive in the Chicago neighborhood she grew up in. Her younger brother Jack survived rheumatic fever as a baby and in return was a frail child in need of a claviger. As a result, the young Armstrong kept an extra eye out for bullies. After a couple scuffles, they generally left the Armstrong children alone.

“Nobody wanted to fight with me,” she said. “I could run faster and climb trees higher than anyone.” She recalled the toughest kid in the neighborhood. His math skills embarrassed him, so Armstrong struck a deal with him: “I’ll teach you math and let’s stop this nonsense.”

In her older and more professional years, Armstrong traded in the physical altercations of her rough and tumble youth for strategic questioning. “I didn’t like it when guys were bossy. I didn’t fight with them like when I was a kid,” she said. Instead, she would often simply say, “Now clarify that for me.” Oftentimes her contenders would sheepishly say they would get back to her, never to be heard from again.

The assumption she often saw, that males are smarter, stronger and overall better than women, prompted Armstrong to study and see if there was any basis to the belief. Her research proved equality.

Armstrong attributes gender power issues to “testosterone poisoning.” Her life’s work, a book prophetically entitled, “The Great Brain Robbery,” will be completed by a colleague in the next year. Alzheimer’s disease prevents Armstrong from finishing the project herself.

Sherwood said that even though Armstrong’s Alzheimer’s has affected her short-term memory, her wit and sharp intellect remain intact. “She can still debate,” the caretaker said and quickly noted, “She’ll win.” Holding a Ph.D. herself, Sherwood wants to write a biography about Armstrong entitled “The Real Great Brain Robbery.”

Dr. Armstrong stays young in spirit and jokes about her condition. Occasionally she asked, “How old am I again?”