Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

O. K. Armstrong

The first time I was ever aware of O. K. Armstrong was when I was a little kid during the early 1950s, and my dad would occasionally mention the name of O. K. Armstrong. Armstrong was a member of the Fair Grove American Legion, in which my father was active. Armstrong wasn't active. He just maintained his membership, but I knew from the way my dad talked about him that he was a fairly important person. Not sure why he was a member of the Fair Grove American Legion, because I think he lived in Springfield at the time. Maybe he belonged to more than one chapter of the American Legion.
Only later did I learn exactly who Orland Kay "O. K." Armstrong was. At the time I recall his being a member of the Fair Grove American Legion, he had just completed his only term as a U. S. congressman representing Missouri's old Sixth District (Springfield and southwest Missouri), but he was already a fairly well known person in the Ozarks even before he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1950.
Armstrong was born in Willow Springs, Missouri, in 1893, but the family moved several times during his childhood and youth, because his father was a school teacher and minister who changed churches or teaching jobs fairly often. The family settled in Carterville, Missouri, when O. K. was a young teenager, and he graduated as valedictorian in 1912 from Carterville High School (which, by the way, consolidated with Webb City years ago).
Armstrong attended Springfield's Drury College, graduating with a bachelor's degree in education in 1916, and then took a job teaching English at Southwest Baptist College, a school that his maternal grandfather had helped found. In 1917, Armstrong joined the U.S. Army to serve during World War I. He was assigned to the Signal Corps, received flight training, and became a flight instructor, a role in which he served for the remainder of the war. While serving as a flight instructor, Armstrong also entered the world of journalism, acting as editor of the flight magazine Propeller.
After the war, Armstrong spent two years in France, helping take care of Russian prisoners of war who were transitioning back to their homeland. Upon his return to the U. S., Armstrong earned a second bachelor's degree and a law degree. He passed the bar exam but declined to enter the field of law. Instead, he enrolled in the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and earned bachelor and master's degrees in 1925. Returning to teaching, he founded the University of Florida's School of Journalism and also began contributing articles to newspapers and magazines. One notable early article he did was a story for Boy's Life based on his interview with aviator Charles Lindbergh, and the two men became fast friends.
Armstrong came back to Missouri in 1929 and first entered politics the following year, running unsuccessfully for the state senate. In 1932, though, he won election to the Missouri House of Representatives. He served until 1936 and then again from 1942 to 1944.
Armstrong continued his journalism career even while he was serving as a state representative, contributing articles to various magazines. With World War II on the horizon, he expressed isolationist views and joined his friend Charles Lindbergh in supporting the America First movement (or, as Woody Guthrie called it, the America Last movement). After the attack on Pearl Harbor, though, he fully supported America's war effort.
After an unsuccessful run for Missouri lieutenant governor, Armstrong served in a variety of appointed government positions. He was elected to his only term in the U. S. House of Representatives in 1950 and served from early 1951 to early 1953. Congressional redistricting after the 1950 census would have forced Armstrong to run against his friend Dewey Short in 1952; so he chose not to run for re-election.
During the 1950s, Armstrong came under criminal investigation by the I. R. S. and was convicted of tax evasion but avoided jail time. In later life, he ran two more times for political office, failing in both 1966 and 1982 to return to the Missouri House of Representatives. He continued his journalism career, however, writing especially for the Reader's Digest. He also became well known in the Springfield area as a campaigner against pornography, and anti-pornography was the subject of a number of his magazine articles.
When I first joined the Missouri Writers' Guild in the mid to late 1970s, both O. K. Armstrong and his wife, Marjorie, were members of the organization, but I don't think I ever personally met the man. He died in Springfield in 1987.


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