City council remembers Harry Armstrong

William “Harry” Armstrong, former Clovis Councilmember of 46 years, passed away Jan. 18, 2018 at the age of 87. (City of Clovis)

As a council member from the 1970s up until 2016, Harry Armstrong made a lasting impact on the city of Clovis as its longstanding policymaker. The influence he had and his legacy will continue to live on in the current council members who he had a tremendous effect on.

At a special city council meeting held Jan. 23, the council began with a moment of silence before each member on the dais recounted their fondest memories of the late and great Armstrong.

As the current senior member on the council, Jose Flores opened up with his memories of Armstrong from when he was still a young boy growing up in Clovis and already a force to be reckoned with.

Later, when Flores joined the council, Armstrong was revered for his institutional memory and knowledge.

“The man remembered everything,” Flores recalled. “He led this council and it was amazing how much he remembered about the decisions that were made, who made them and how. He defined what service is and we’re going to miss him. I’m sure he will watch over us and make sure that Clovis stays on the right path.”

Lynne Ashbeck fought back tears as she joked about being Harry’s favorite and speaking of the remarks he would so often make, such as comments that another council member’s thoughts on a matter were “very interesting,” which the council came to learn could be translated as “not very smart.” She also recounted how Armstrong would never refer to Fresno as Fresno, but always as “the city to the west.”

Ashbeck also remembered Armstrong for his superior memory.

“He served so long that we are now re-doing things that were done in the 70s because it’s time to update this or that and he could remember why it was done in the first place. So, you would get some context for everything so it makes sense why this was there,” Ashbeck said. “He cared so deeply about this city. I don’t think anyone could ever express into words how much he cared about the city. We, the collective we, were really his family. He loved all of us and it’s hard to describe.

“He touched everything in the city of Clovis that we enjoy today. I don’t think the regular person has an appreciation for why these freeways show up and why Old Town looks the way it does. All of that was empowered by Harry. There will never be another person in the city like that. We were lucky to call him a friend and a colleague.”

Mayor Bob Whalen tried to recall one singular memory, but said it was difficult to sum up a man’s life in just one action, especially a life as full as Armstrong’s, but Whalen said if he had to choose, he will always remember how Armstrong dug the city out of a tough spot when an FBI investigation went on, focusing on past corruption. For his ethics, Armstrong was awarded the Rose Ann Vuich Ethical Leadership Award.

“His strength and love for this community and love for what is right put him in a position where he could be the positive stabilizing influence through that very difficult time for the city of Clovis,” Whalen said. “I will remember him for that probably more than anything else.”

Councilmember Drew Bessinger, who was elected to complete Armstrong’s term after he had to step down, said he most remembers Armstrong from seeing him around coffee shops and on the dais when he worked as a police sergeant in the city.

“Most of my experience with Harry was as a staff member and union president, which put me at different ends of the spectrum with Harry sometimes,” Bessinger said. “Working as a police sergeant, I did graveyard shifts and at 5 a.m. I’d go somewhere for breakfast and Harry would show up. He had three or four coffee shops he would go to gain and gather information and he would always begin a conversation with ‘A little birdy told me something’ and I’d be ‘OK Harry what now?’”

Bessinger also recounted one of his last times with Armstrong, when the two joked about Bessinger’s retirement plan—a union plan Armstrong had objected to back in the day.

“Recently before his passing, I was helping him get his phone together and he needed a cord and charger and everything and very nicely he said ‘Drew, I don’t want you to spend your money on this’ and I said ‘Harry, I make a really good retirement, not that you voted for it’ and he goes ‘I still think I was right.’ I enjoyed conversations I had with him over the last year or two. It was nice that when you talked politics, you would see 20 years come off of him and that spark in his eye.”

Though councilmember Vong Mouanoutoua didn’t have as close a relationship with Armstrong as the rest of the council, he said he had great respect for him and was glad he got to know him in his latter years.

“There are people you meet in your lifetime who you wish you were with when they were doing their best and there is a sense of shucks. I didn’t get to sit up on the dais with him to see how he interacted and thought and analyzed, and I wish I had the opportunity to be with him like that,” Mouanoutoua said.

“When I got on the planning commission, he was the one council member I respected the most or feared the most because you knew he was Clovis. In my culture, there are people to whom you do not extend your hand to shake unless they extend their hand to shake yours. You do not respond unless they speak to you and I looked at him that way and that is not out of disrespect but the utmost respect and when I first went to see him when he was off the council it was like that, I was just like, I’ll put your socks on for you and if you need anything, I’ll go get it, but in that he was just talking and sharing his love for Clovis, his love for service and his love for people. That never wavered.”

A memorial service for Harry Armstrong will be family only, but the City of Clovis is planning a celebratory event in Armstrong’s honor. Information on that event will be released in the coming weeks.