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Published: Wednesday, 10/6/2004

Hillsdale weeps for engineer killed in Iraq

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

HILLSDALE - Jack Armstrong was the sort of character who would have become a legend among those who knew him even if terrorists hadn't made him an international figure by beheading him in Iraq.

The United Nations construction engineer learned languages and local customs in Asia, Africa, and Europe, but dropped out of high school in Hillsdale County.

"Angola didn't kill me, but it tried: malaria four times, and one black scorpion bite," he once told his friend and former adult education instructor Mike S. Miller, who recalled the conversation at a memorial service yesterday at Hillsdale College for Mr. Armstrong.

About 200 people attended, as well as about 150 Hillsdale College Choir and Hillsdale High School Orchestra members who provided patriotic music.

In a later letter, Mr. Armstrong wrote, "Alive and well in Thailand for two weeks, before that alive and well in Germany for three months, and before that one month in Portugal and Spain."

Somewhere along the way, Mr. Armstrong became certified to teach English as a foreign language. He said to Mr. Miller: "If you was a foreigner, how would you like to learn English from a cool dude like me?"

Mr. Armstrong rode motorcycles and loved swimming, boating, and fishing. He would spend days looking for fossils and enjoying the outdoors. He romped with an Irish setter he dearly loved. He gave friends his homemade wine at Christmas.

He read science fiction and told Mr. Miller he would write a best seller and "then someday you can say, 'We knew him when.' "

Stephanie Armstrong, former sister-in-law to jack Armstrong, the construction engineer who was beheaded in Iraq last month, hugs friend Gina Valdez, left at a memorial service in Hillsdale yesterday. Stephanie Armstrong, former sister-in-law to jack Armstrong, the construction engineer who was beheaded in Iraq last month, hugs friend Gina Valdez, left at a memorial service in Hillsdale yesterday.
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The day that stories about Mr. Armstrong topped the news, however, was because of his death rather than a brilliant book.

Mr. Armstrong was one of three construction workers - two Americans and a Briton - kidnapped from their home in Baghdad on Sept. 16 by a group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was the first of the Americans to be killed.

Mr. Miller said he was sure that's because Mr. Armstrong must have given his captors a hard time.

Mr. Miller watched the execution, which was posted on the Internet.

"I had to. I didn't have a choice," he said. "It was monstrous. He suffered. It's hard to fathom people that cruel."

Many of Mr. Armstrong's 51 years were hard - and his stubborn nature often made tough times even tougher.

His parents divorced when he was a child and he moved with his father from Germany to Hillsdale County, about 85 miles northwest of Toledo. He left school, married and divorced twice, and had a son, Mike, who committed suicide at age 18.

He had little contact with many relatives and did not visit all his siblings, some of whom he had not seen in 14 years, on a trip to Michigan a few years ago.

Many women found him attractive, but a lasting commitment appeared to elude him for years.

"He had a lot of girlfriends, but at the same time he was always looking for a relationship," Mr. Miller said. Only recently had he appeared to find that with his common-law wife in Thailand.

But in Hillsdale County, his jobs had been as short term as his love affairs, leading to his decision in the early 1990s to move to Germany. His mother, who remained there, provided him a link first with government warehouse work and then U.N. construction jobs in war-torn areas around the world, including two years in Bosnia.

"He'd tell me stories about working with the Albanians during the day and then driving to the border at night to socialize with the Serbians, whom he said were 'much better partiers.'‚óŹ" Mr. Miller said during the memorial service.

"Jack would want me to tell you not to grieve for him," Mr. Miller said, adding later that Mr. Armstrong believed in reincarnation and elements of Eastern religions as well as Christian ethics.

"We should rather grieve for the demonic, the terrorist, lost to themselves and without intelligence, engaged in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world and lead to the degradation of their souls," he continued.

State Rep. Bruce Caswell (R., Hillsdale), the only other person to speak at length who knew Mr. Armstrong well, told the crowd to keep Mr. Armstrong's memory by seeing problems as opportunities.

He also urged them to look at people for who they are, rather than for their degrees and positions.

Mr. Armstrong, he said, "had seen well-educated people with lots of credentials who quite frankly weren't worth a warm bucket of spit" while he, a high school drop-out, learned the local ways around the world.

"Jack Armstrong found America not big enough," Mr. Caswell said. "He needed the world to move about."

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

jschmucker@theblade.com

or 419-337-7780.



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