Faith, family, and freedom. The late Sen. William L. Armstrong cherished these values throughout his life as a successful businessman, political leader, and university president.
Today, Armstrong’s son Wil is honoring his father’s legacy with the William L. Armstrong Award, which recognizes an individual who has made a difference in America’s culture through business, politics, or education. This year’s recipient, Heritage Foundation President Kay C. James, received the honor from the Centennial Institute, Colorado Christian University’s public policy think tank, in partnership with The Armstrong Project.
Wil Armstrong joins me for an interview on “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his father’s love for America and how the younger Armstrong and his wife Kristy are making sure they recognize those who embody the values his father held dear. Listen to the interview or read a lightly edited transcript.
Rob Bluey: We are joined on “The Daily Signal Podcast” today by Wil Armstrong. He’s an entrepreneur and small businessman who serves as the chairman and CEO of Three Tree Capital, a trustee at Colorado Christian University, and chairman of the Armstrong Family Foundation. Wil, thanks so much for joining us today.
Wil Armstrong: Hi, Rob. Thanks. Nice to join you.
Bluey: It is a real pleasure to talk to you. You’re also the son of the great Sen. William Armstrong, who not only worked closely with the team here at The Heritage Foundation, but also knew our president, Kay Coles James. So we’re thankful for all of your father’s contributions to The Heritage Foundation and also his service in government, academia, and the private sector.
I want to begin by just having you tell our listeners a little bit more about him and the inspiring role he played, not only in your life, but so many others.
Armstrong: Well, my dad really was a remarkable person, flawed as we all are. But my dad really had a heart for people, a heart for service.
He got fascinated at an early age in the new technology of his time: radio. This was in the early 1940s, late 1940s. Got interested in the radio business, joked that he did the first ever leveraged buyout when he bought a radio station with no money down in 1959 in Denver, Colorado. He was all of 22 years old.
And really, business was an important part of most of his life. I mean, he was a businessman and an entrepreneur, really, all his life. But he got interested in politics because he really felt that there was an overreach of what was going on in government, not too dissimilar than what’s going on today, Rob.
But in the early 1960s, as an entrepreneur and small businessman, newly married, he got interested in politics. He ended up serving in the state Legislature in 1972, about the same time that Heritage was founding.
In fact, you mentioned the folks at Heritage. Heritage has this strong Colorado connection, starting about the same time, and with my father, starting about the same time in 1973, that my dad went to Washington. Ed Feulner and Paul Weyrich both worked for Sen. Gordon Allott here in Colorado. Joe Coors, who, if memory serves, was a initial trustee. All from Colorado.
And my dad served in the House for three terms until 1978 and was elected twice as the U.S. senator from Colorado in 1978. And then again in 1984. And at the ripe old age of 53, he felt that his time as a citizen legislator in Washington, D.C., was over. And so, he retired to come home to business.
He’s the last Republican to win Denver and Boulder County in the same election, in 1984. So things have changed a little here in Colorado, politically. But my dad got back involved in business and ultimately ended up as president of Colorado Christian University, which he really said was his great life’s work, that people remember him in business. And people certainly remember him politically.
But Rob, his great work was actually investing in the lives of future generations and students at Colorado Christian University.
Bluey: That’s great. Thanks so much for sharing that story. And we’ll get to more of the award that is named in his honor and the tremendous video and documentary storytelling that you’ve done to help others and future generations understand his contributions.
But, Wil, so much of the work that you’re doing now is focused on the American citizens’ responsibility to use their talents and time to help build a more perfect union in our country. I believe that’s one of the reasons that you honor an individual with the William L. Armstrong Award each year. Can you tell us more about the award, why it’s so important to recognize these characteristics particularly?
Armstrong: The background on the award is that it’s presented in partnership with Colorado Christian University and the Centennial Institute. I’m a trustee at CCU. I’ve got kids that are graduates there. And obviously, my father’s role there. But Kristy and I, my wife and I, on behalf of our family, we present the award each year to a leader who embodies the principles that my father held dear: faith, family, and freedom.
And so, what we don’t want to do is we don’t want to just give it to a worthy recipient. Instead, we really want to honor a successful role model to inspire another generation of future leaders. I mean, to think about people’s own role in promoting faith and family and freedom.
And we think that with film and story, and other ways we might do this—digital means, etc., even traditional means—but this idea of film and telling stories has inspired us to tell those stories. And as Mrs. James makes the point, we want to tell stories about America and about Americans that make America exceptional. The stories of great examples of that.
And so, each year we’re excited that we get to highlight two great role models: my dad and the recipient of this award. And this year, obviously with it being Mrs. James, we couldn’t be more thrilled about it.
Bluey: Wil, on that note, in conjunction with the award, The Armstrong Project has just done an amazing job of using the power of film to document some of these important leaders in America. You recently honored Heritage’s president, Kay Coles James, at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver. The 30-minute video that you produced was an amazing story, not only of her life, but also your father, Sen. Armstrong. Why are stories like this so important for Americans to hear?
Armstrong: Well, I think that, to start, in these challenging times that you reference, that we live in, where there’s divisiveness, it seems like everybody’s on the extreme. Well, one of the principles that my father lived by was the idea that you could disagree without being disagreeable. And obviously, we know the power of story. And I’m sort of a natural optimist. So in just trying to contextualize our vision for this, what we wanted to do was leverage the legacy of my dad to begin to tell some of those stories.
So, clearly, we need to create a more perfect union in our country today. I mean, we’re never going to get there. We know America isn’t perfect and it never will be, but we’re all expected to strive, and in my view, rise above that and to create a more civil society and to build a more perfect union.
So the opportunity to highlight someone like Kay James, who went from Portsmouth to the president’s office, I mean, wow, what a great role model to otherwise be able to honor because of the meaningful difference that she’s made.
I mean, her life story of living in faith and defending the cause of life and liberty, making things happen for herself and her family—really for our country—serving four presidents, passing it along to others via Heritage and the Gloucester Institute, really, it’s inspirational. It’s a remarkable story. She’s a dynamic example of what makes America exceptional. And I just had felt that her life is worth honoring and her story was worth telling.
Bluey: You had the chance to visit her at Holly Knoll, the historic home that’s located in Gloucester, Virginia. It played such an important role in our civil rights movement in this country. The interview that you did was just so moving, emotionally moving. If you watch the video—and we will make sure that our listeners have an opportunity to see that on your website—what stands out in that conversation to you about her and your own father’s influence on her life?
Armstrong: Well, I think in many ways, it really is the journey that Mrs. James covered in her life. We talk a little bit about this in the film, but literally from poverty in the segregated South, growing up in Richmond, to, as I said, serving four presidents, she’s made an enormous contribution and her life just tells the kind of a story that I believe is not only encouraging and important to hear, [but] for anybody of any age to hear that kind of a story.
It really is a blueprint about a life well lived, a life lived by faith, by principles, that you can rise in America, that you can succeed, that you can make an enormous difference for the poor, the least of these, rich and poor alike. That is the story of Mrs. James.
And it’s just so encouraging to me to be around somebody who has her energy, her passion, her grace, her love for country, and really her love of neighbor. Her faith I know plays a important role in her life. And she just, in my book, is sort of the epitome of someone who loves God and loves her neighbor well by her vocational work.
Bluey: You’ve been giving this award out since 2016, share with our listeners some of the previous recipients who you’ve had the chance to honor.
Armstrong: Well, it really has been a privilege to be able to do this in partnership with CCU and the Centennial Institute. The award has been given to [commentator and radio host] Dennis Prager [and] to Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and Family Talk. It has been given to a former attorney general and counselor to President [Ronald] Reagan, Ed Meese. It’s been given to Robby George, the professor extraordinaire from Princeton.
Last year, we gave the award and produced our first film. It was really because of the pandemic that we endeavored to go down this path. And so, we produced a film on Steve Green. Steve, as you know, is the president of Hobby Lobby. And he’s also the chairman and the founder of the Museum of the Bible.
And just again, wanted to tell some great stories and highlight people who’ve made a meaningful difference and who cared about and contributed to America, but cared about the principles of faith, family, and freedom in business, politics, education, the media, etc.
Bluey: Those are some amazing leaders and people that I look up to, and I know many others do as well. Wil, as the son of a former senator and someone who has served yourself in many leadership roles, what are the attributes that make good leaders today?
Armstrong: What an important question. And in fact, I probably would reference back to what Mrs. James said in our award film this year, for starters. That people won’t want to follow you—I’m paraphrasing—people won’t want to listen to you until they know you care.
And so, a lot of people, I think, get sort of worked up in strategy—and you see this politically, too. That people think, “Oh, it’s all about strategy.” I’m sort of a “culture eats strategy for lunch” person. I think it’s the people that are involved. And I think really what I’ve been learning is that great leaders, yes, they’re smart; yes, they’re strategic; but fundamentally, I think Mrs. James got it about perfect. And that is that, again, people won’t follow you, people won’t listen to you, people won’t be persuaded by you until they know you care.
Bluey: That is so true. That is definitely true. Wil, you’ve been involved in many different areas, from business to academia, yourself, even politics. Why is it so important that Americans today engage in some of these arenas and not sit on the sidelines, but become active participants?
Armstrong: Well, I’m reminded, I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said that if you’re a taxpayer, you’re involved in politics. I just think it’s just true. One of my favorite quotes is actually from former President George H.W. Bush, and he said something along the lines that any definition of success in life must include service to others.
So, I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a businessman, but I’m involved and have wanted to be involved throughout my life to make a difference. And I’ve chosen to do that through my church and through philanthropy and in politics. And I really think that’s the call of all citizens.
I think part of the vision that our Founders had, it’s part of what has made America exceptional, is that people chart their own courses, but that part of the American success, part of the American experiment, the American dream even, has been this idea that we care for our neighbor and that we serve others. So, that has just been something that has been important to me along the way.
And some people serve in very public fashions, like Mrs. James and my father. I’m not particularly a public figure, but I think it’s important.
… I went to India when I was in college in the late 1980s. And one of my heroes was Mother Teresa. And Mother Teresa was famous for making the point that she wasn’t trying to change the world. She was trying to change the world for one. And I think that’s really the call that all of us should have as citizens of this great country, that God has blessed us with, that we should endeavor to serve others and try to change the lives of one, and do that over and over and over again, as best we can.
Bluey: That’s great advice, Wil. And it is encouraging to see so many people taking a step, a first step, in some cases—showing up at school board meetings, speaking out on some issues. We featured some of those voices right here on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” What advice would you give for individuals who might be listening and may be a little bit fearful about taking that first step and getting involved, using their talents or time to build a more perfect union, as you said?
Armstrong: I think, just to start, just to take a step, that you’re right. And I commend Heritage and your work in particular, just as it relates to telling those kinds of stories, but encouraging people to do that. And I think just starting out small.
I mean, my father was a United States senator, but when I first got involved in politics, I started walking my neighborhood and getting to know my neighbors and talking political issues. And then I ended up becoming a precinct captain politically. And so, I think it’s just beginning small. You mentioned things like school boards or involvement in your local county. I think there’s lots of things to do.
But given these challenging times, this is really a defining moment of time in our history. My encouragement would be to just start, wherever it is, to volunteer at your church, to be involved in your local civic societies, to engage in your political party, to run as a delegate to a county or state convention, but just to get involved. That everybody has a first day of engagement like that.
So, just take one step and get after it. Because I think it can really make all the difference in the world. Small groups of people have been changing the world … immemorial. And so, my sense is that getting people engaged and involved is important. And the first step is to just take that first step.
Bluey: Wil, could you share with our listeners what your future goals are for The Armstrong Project and the award and all the other great things that you’re doing there?
Armstrong: Well, we’re endeavoring at The Armstrong Project to really provide actionable resources. We want to encourage and energize more thoughtful discussions and to advance vital principles that we think are important in business, politics, or education and philanthropy.
We want to do this by leveraging my dad’s life and legacy, his historical papers, but really what we want to do is we want to focus on the issues that he cared about in making America, to the larger point we’re talking about today, a more perfect union. And so, we’re doing that by incubating new initiatives and iterating ideas all with the hope, in my view, of trying to tell stories that advance faith, family, and freedom.
I mean, Mrs. James was the perfect example, and the more people that understand and know her story and her life and the important work that she’s doing, the better.
So, part of my encouragement would also be to stay tuned. We are working on a number of different things. We’re going to keep updating at thearmstrongproject.org the things that we’re working on, but whether they’re readings or books or more films, we love the idea of telling more stories. We’re excited about it because there really is a lot of great reasons to think about America as this exceptional place that God has blessed us with. And so, we want to tell more of those stories.
Bluey: And Wil, how can our listeners or Daily Signal readers learn more about and support your work?
Armstrong: Well, I hope that people would come to thearmstrongproject.org and just sign up and register to stay informed. We’re not raising money. And so, it’s really just, my hope would be that we would be able to connect and that they’d be able to stay in tune and that we would be an encouragement to them on their journey to figure out how to make a difference and to ultimately be of service to others.
Bluey: And that website, thearmstrongproject.org, is where our listeners can watch the video of Heritage President Kay Coles James and also Steve Green, the production that you did last year. Thank you so much, Wil, for everything that you’re doing. We really do truly support the mission that you’re advancing here in our great country and are thankful for it.
Armstrong: Great. Thank you so much, Rob. Really appreciate it.
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