Louise A. Armstrong, educator, volunteer and lover of theater, dies

Mrs. Armstrong had a love of community theater and took her children to rehearsals and performances.

Louise A. Armstrong, an educator and volunteer who enjoyed attending the theater and concerts, died of heart failure July 20 at her Ruxton home. She was 96.

The daughter of Franklin G. Allen, a business executive, and Evelyn Parlange Allen, a homemaker, Louise Denis Allen was born in Baltimore and raised in the city's Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood.

Because her mother came from a French Creole background and was a native of New Orleans, Dr. Armstrong grew up speaking both French and English. She attended the Calvert School and graduated in 1938 from the Bryn Mawr School.

At an early age, she began the study of piano and planned to continue that pursuit at the Peabody Conservatory of Music after graduating from high school. But after receiving a scholarship, she attended Bryn Mawr College and obtained a bachelor's degree in 1942 amid World War II.

"Her exceptional facility with languages, and her uncanny ability to spot and remember patterns caught the attention of Naval Intelligence, and right after Pearl Harbor she was recruited to work as a code breaker in Washington," a daughter, Hollywood actress Bess Armstrong Fiedler of Los Angeles, whose professional name is Bess Armstrong, wrote in an email.

In the fall of 1942, Dr. Armstrong reported for duty and joined a team that had helped win the Battle of Midway in June of that year. She spent the remainder of the war working with Japanese codes.

She auditioned for and was offered the opportunity to understudy the role of Ophelia in Maurice Evans' wartime production of "Hamlet," but Navy Intelligence officials would not to allow her to accept the role.

"On an afternoon off-duty during basic training, she produced what became an enormously popular WAVE marching song called 'Ginny the Ninny of the First Platoon,' set to the music of 'The Strip Polka.' It is her claim to fame on the internet to this day," Ms. Armstrong said.

After the war, she began working on her doctorate in medieval Romance languages at the Johns Hopkins University.

At a dinner party, she met Alexander Armstrong, an actor who at the time was also executive director of the United Nations Association of Maryland. The couple fell in love and appeared together in plays at Don Swann's Hilltop Theater in Baltimore. They married in 1951.

"They both had a wonderful joie de vivre," said William C. "Will" Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a longtime friend. "They were interested in music, the theater and art. I remember Louise as an older woman, but she had this wonderful little-girl quality about her."

She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and completed her doctorate in 1952. She taught Latin and ancient Greek at Bryn Mawr but had to reduce her schedule to part time after having four children in less than four years, including a set of twins.

In the early 1960s she gave up teaching after the birth of her fifth child, but continued to work as a substitute teacher and tutor at Bryn Mawr into the 1970s.

The couple were active in community theater and brought their children to rehearsals and performances.

"They instilled a love and regard for theater in us. They said you did theater and music for the delight of it," Ms. Armstrong said.

A resident of Ruxton since 1951, Dr. Armstrong volunteered at Planned Parenthood and later served as a counselor there. During the 1980s, she volunteered at House of Ruth, working on the organization's hotline, and also volunteered at Paul's Place.

Her husband retired in 1979 from the Gilman School, and after that they both volunteered with Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland and tutored at-risk children in the city.

Every spring for 50 years, the couple traveled to Bethlehem, Pa., to attend the Bach Festival and performance of Bach's Mass in B-minor. They were season-ticket holders to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and, during the 1960s, were members of the Handel Chorus.

The last play Dr. Armstrong attended was the Vagabond Players production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" in January. In the show, her son-in-law, Baltimore actor and director Josh Shoemaker, played the role of the stage manager.

Even as her short-term memory began to fail, she could recite poems she had learned 50 years ago or more.

"She could recite hundreds of poems off the top of her head and in several different languages," Ms. Armstrong said.

Her charitable and philanthropic interests included the Nature Conservancy, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, House of Ruth, Planned Parenthood, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, Paul's Place, Smile Train, Bryn Mawr School and Bryn Mawr College.

She and her husband, who died in 2003, were world travelers and liked vacationing with family at New Hampshire's Squam Lake.

"They were tremendously generous and loving parents. They celebrated our successes and mourned our failures," Ms. Armstrong said.

Family members said that almost until her death, Dr. Armstrong continued to bake bread, make soup, walk her dogs daily on her 7-acre property, play the piano and search for four-leaf clovers.

She was a communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Boyce and Carrollton avenues in Ruxton, where a memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Sept. 2.

In addition to Ms. Armstrong, survivors include a son, Alexander Armstrong Jr. of Santa Ana, Calif; three other daughters, Louise Machen of Ruxton, Mary Shoemaker of Towson and Carrie Montague of Sparks; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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