Alexander Armstrong, 89, Gilman teacher


Alexander Armstrong, a former Gilman School English teacher who inspired generations of students with his light-hearted approach to literature and drama and was known for fiendishly elaborate practical jokes, died of an aneurysm Sunday at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Ruxton resident was 89.

Mr. Armstrong was born in Hagerstown and raised in Baltimore on Biddle and Eager streets. He was the son of Alexander Armstrong III, a banker, attorney and former Maryland attorney general who died in 1939.

He was a 1933 graduate of Gilman and earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1937 from Princeton University. After briefly attending law school, he enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University.

His studies were interrupted when he enlisted in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served aboard the USS Chicago, a heavy cruiser, as a battery officer and senior radar control officer. He participated in several historic naval engagements including the Battle of the Coral Sea, Savo Island and Rennell Island, where the cruiser was sunk in 1943 by Japanese torpedo planes.

Mr. Armstrong spent several hours in the Pacific waters before being rescued. He finished his naval service at Guam, and attained the rank of lieutenant commander.

Returning to Hopkins, he earned a master's degree in English literature in 1947. He was executive director of the United Nations Association of Maryland before joining the Gilman faculty in 1951. He taught English and directed student plays there until retiring in 1979. For nearly 30 years, he also edited the Gilman Bulletin alumni magazine.

Mr. Armstrong's interest in drama began in his student days at Gilman and later at Princeton, where he performed in three Princeton Triangle Club productions.

While appearing in plays at Don Swann's Hilltop Theater in Baltimore, he met Louise Allen, who was an actress. They were married in 1951.

During his nearly three decades as a faculty member at the North Baltimore preparatory school, Mr. Armstrong developed a reputation as an excellent teacher, editor and practical joker.

"He was a 100 percent positive person. He was an even-tempered intellectual who had the most marvelous sense of humor. He was a fair and excellent teacher who was always very thorough in his evaluations of a student's work," said Redmond C.S. Finney, Gilman headmaster from 1968 to 1992. "He worked hard at helping them become better writers and speakers. He's the kind of guy you want on your faculty."

"He liked to tell the story of one of his English students whose paper contained the sentence, 'Then, Macbeth went bananas.' Alex wrote in the margin, 'An old Scottish expression, I presume,'" said Arthur W. Machen Jr., a retired Baltimore attorney and longtime friend.

In Gilman Voices: 1897-1997, a history of the school, Mr. Armstrong recalled trying to maintain his students' attention against competition produced by the noisy arrival of coal trucks or that of an alumnus who landed on the football field in a helicopter. The Orioles who used Gilman's playing fields for practice in 1954 proved to be a major league distraction.

"The gentle breeze carried the crack of the bat and the shouts of coaches and players. How other teachers fared, I can't say, but I was teaching Idylls of the King, and found at once that 'Elaine the fair, Elaine the loveable, Elaine the lily maid of Astolat,' was no match for Bullet Bob Turley and his cohorts," Mr. Armstrong wrote in his contribution.

"Alex was completely imperturbable. He was also the only person in the English department who had a compulsively clean desk. He'd even arrange the paper clips," said A.J. "Jerry" Downs, who taught English at the school for 40 years. "He was also the most brilliant, dead-pan practical joker I've ever known."

One of his most inventive practical jokes involved wiring a knee-operated switch that controlled a lamp on the desk of Roy C. Barker, English department chairman. As the lamp flicked on and off, Mr. Barker's annoyance grew until he finally realized he was the target of Mr. Armstrong's handiwork.

"I remember Barker's stentorian voice when he roared, 'Armstrong. I don't know how you're doing it, but STOP!'" Mr. Downs said.

Mr. Armstrong enjoyed attending the theater, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Pro Musica Rara. Each spring, he journeyed with other family members to Bethlehem, Pa., to hear an annual performance of Bach's B-Minor Mass.

He played piano, guitar, banjo and harmonica. His musical interests ranged from classical to swing.

An avid landscaper, he planted trees for 50 years at his home on Skyline Drive in Ruxton.

He was a member and sang in the choir for many years of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Boyce and Carrollton avenues in Ruxton, where a memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Dec. 20.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Armstrong is survived by a son, Alexander Armstrong V of Santa Ana, Calif.; four daughters, Louise A. Machen of Ruxton, Mary A. Shoemaker of Towson, actress Bess Armstrong Fiedler of Los Angeles and Caroline A. Montague of Sparks; and 13 grandchildren.

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