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|William H. Armstrong|
|Born||September 14, 1911
|Died||April 11, 1999
|Notable award(s)||Newbery Medal|
William H. Armstrong (September 14, 1911 near Lexington, Virginia - April 11, 1999 in Kent, Connecticut) was an American children's author and educator, best known for his 1969 Newbery Medal-winning novel, Sounder.
William Howard Armstrong was born on September 14,1914, during the worst hailstorm and tornado in the memory of his Lexington, Virginia, neighbors. He was the third child born to Howard Gratton Armstrong, a farmer, and his wife, Ida Morris Armstrong. He had a difficult time in school, being a small child with asthma and glasses .
While his father taught him to work hard, his mother taught Armstrong to love stories. “No one told me the Bible was not for young readers, so I found some exciting stories in it,” Armstrong said. “Not until years later did I understand why I liked the Bible stories so much. It was because everything that could possibly be omitted [left out] was omitted. There was no description of David so I could be like David... .” Armstrong later used the art of omission in his own writing of Sounder which he wrote based on an account told around his family’s kitchen table in Virginia. One story in particular, told by an elderly black man about Argus, the faithful dog of Odysseus, fascinated him; the dog recognized his master when he returned home after being away for twenty long years. This story stayed with him throughout his life and ultimately was the inspiration for his award winning children's book, Sounder.
After growing up on a farm near Lexington graduated from the Augusta Military Academy. He attended Hampden-Sydney College where Armstrong wrote for the college’s newspaper and its literary magazine, and even served as the magazine’s editor. He graduated cum laude in 1936, then continued his higher education with graduate work at the University of Virginia. He farmed in Connecticut near the Housatonic River, also learning to be a carpenter and a stonemason. In 1945, he became a history master at Kent School in Kent, Connecticut, where he remained for fifty-two years, teaching general studies and ancient history to generations of third formers (ninth graders).
Armstrong was loved, admired, and feared by his students. A truly formidable character and head of "study hall", he suffered no fools lightly. More than once he was known to send a text book flying across the classroom with unerring accuracy to awaken one inattentive student or another.
In 1956, at the request of his school headmaster, he published his first book, a study guide called Study Is Hard Work. Armstrong followed this title with numerous other self-help books, and in 1963 he was awarded the National School Bell Award of the National Association of School Administrators for distinguished service in the interpretation of education.
In 1969, Armstrong published his masterpiece, a short novel entitled Sounder about a 19th century African-American sharecropper family. Praised by critics, Sounder won the John Newbery Medal and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1970, and was adapted into a major motion picture in 1972 starring Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson. Despite its success, it was criticized by some African-Americans because they claimed that a white writer couldn't really understand their experience.
Among his other novels are The Sour Land which is a sequel to Sounder, though not labeled as such, The Mills of God and The MacLeod Place, the story of a multi-generational family farm displaced by the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
By the mid 1970s, enriched by earnings from Sounder, among other works, Armstrong was thoroughly ensconced in Kent School. He raised sheep for passover on a beautiful hillside piece of property provided by the school and reportedly only charged Kent one dollar per year for his academic services.
He continued to be prolific in his writing output, mainly publishing books with historical or biblical main characters, such as Hadassah: Esther the Orphan Queen (1972) and The Education of Abraham Lincoln (1974).
Armstrong was rewarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Hampden-Sydney College in 1986.
His Newbery Medal currently resides in the William Armstrong children's book section at Bortz Library at Armstrong's alma mater Hampden-Sydney College.