By M. Scott Morris
BLUE MOUNTAIN – People and places can merge together over time, and it becomes hard to tell when one ends and the other begins.
In this case, the person is 81-year-old Johnnie Armstrong, and the place is her alma mater and professional home, Blue Mountain College.
“I don’t really know how to tell you what a blessing it’s been to be here,” she said.
She was working at a park in Nashville, when she met a pair of sisters who went to BMC. In Armstrong’s memory, it seemed like the school was all they ever talked about.
After the sisters went back to school, Armstrong caught a ride with their parents for her first visit to the campus.
“When I drove through the gate down here, I knew I was home,” she said. “From the time I went up the hill, I knew this was the place for me.”
Armstrong went back to Nashville to work at a Loveman’s store to earn enough money to enroll in the spring semester.
But all was not perfectly aligned for person and place at that time. Armstrong had known since she was 7 years old that she wanted to be involved in recreation or physical education. That was when her father had given her a Wilson baseball glove.
“My dad played burnout with me in the backyard,” she said. “He would throw the ball and every time he threw it, it would get a little harder. That’s burnout, and I could catch anything he got over the plate.”
BMC didn’t offer a physical education degree, so she studied elementary education and ended up teaching third and fourth grade in Laurel.
“I loved my kids, but I knew I couldn’t stay in four walls every day,” she said.
She soon got a call from Lawrence Lowrey, president of BMC. He used his nickname for her and made an offer.
“He said, ‘Johannes, I need you at Blue Mountain College,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘We’re starting a physical education program and we want you to do it.’”
Armstrong told him she needed to pray about her decisions, but that didn’t take long at all.
This year will mark the 60th anniversary of Armstrong’s return to BMC as a teacher. Her first classroom was the school’s activities center, which was known as the Gal-ry. It’s called the Johnnie Armstrong Gal-ry today.
She’s taught archery, golf, tennis, fencing, badminton and more. She’s coached basketball, and worked as the school’s athletic director.
In years past, she taught eight classes a semester. This semester, she’s teaching five classes.
When BMC alumni return to campus for visits, they often seek her out.
“I see a lot of people because I worked with them in class. I worked with them in intramurals. I worked with them in various clubs,” she said. “I guess they always look for someone they know. It’s fun to see them. I think of them as my children.”
Armstrong is well past retirement age, but her stay at BMC won’t be determined by something as arbitrary as a number.
“It’ll be when the Lord tells me to or when Dr. Mac tells me to, whichever comes first,” Armstrong said, referring to BMC President Barbara McMillin.
Armstrong knows the time will come when she’ll have to relinquish her job.
But she doesn’t foresee there ever being a separation between person and place.
“I wouldn’t trade this place for any place else. I’ve probably had the best life of anybody. That’s no bull. That’s how I feel,” she said. “When I retire, I’ll stay at Blue Mountain. I’ll probably volunteer.”