Longtime Clovis Councilman Harry Armstrong honored as he casts his last votes

A Who’s Who of area politics and civic life gathered at Clovis City Hall on Monday for a reception in honor of William “Harry” Armstrong, who retired after 46 years on the Clovis City Council.

Armstrong, dressed in a dark suit with a white rose in the lapel, sat in a wheelchair and greeted some 300 well-wishers who streamed through the reception.

“This city ought to be called the City of Clovis, made by Armstrong,” said former Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson.

Among the guests were Fresno County Supervisors Buddy Mendes and Debbie Poochigian, and her husband, 5th District Court of Appeal Justice Chuck Poochigian; former supervisor Bob Waterston; Fresno City Councilmen Sal Quintero and Paul Caprioglio; Assemblyman Jim Patterson; Clovis Unified Superintendent Janet Young; Congressman Jim Costa; builder Leo Wilson; and U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Ishii.

Many were sporting buttons that read “Do the right thing,” a closing remark Armstrong imparted to his fellow council members Monday night.

Outside the gathering, friends and former co-workers recalled Armstrong’s decency and civility.

“It’s too bad our national politicians do not have his 40 years of ethics,” said Charlie Maxwell, a retired Clovis police officer and former leader of the city’s police union.

He and Armstrong didn’t always agree on issues, but they always maintained the ability to talk to each other.

“You didn’t have to agree with Harry, but he was always approachable,” Maxwell said. “He put the city above everything else.”

One thing he noticed right away among Monday’s well-wishers was “both sides of the aisle are here” for Armstrong, a Democrat.

Longtime friend Vern Barkman, a member of the Clovis Rodeo Association, has known Armstrong since 1960, and has attended most City Council meetings over the years.

“You would have to go a long way to find someone to replace Harry,” Barkman said. “Harry fought hard for what he thought was right.”

Armstrong, who turns 86 this month, first was elected to the City Council in 1970. (He spent four years on the planning commission before taking his council seat.) During the past year he has battled pneumonia and complications related to the illness.

He has taken time off from City Council meetings with the council’s permission and has attended by teleconference.

On this Monday, however, Armstrong was present for a council meeting at which he was honored by dignitaries for 45 minutes in gratitude for his long service to the city and the region.

Armstrong was influential statewide, serving as president of the California League of Cities as well as serving on transportation and water agencies during his tenure. He played key roles in bringing Highway 168 through Clovis and the measure that paid for the Clovis police and fire headquarters.

Gov. Jerry Brown sent a signed proclamation, members of the Clovis Rodeo Association gave him a bronze statue of a bull rider, and a Harry Armstrong Way street sign was presented to him from the city’s Public Utilities Department, along with numerous plaques and proclamations.

Patterson presented Armstrong with a joint resolution from the state Assembly and Senate for his service.

He said Armstrong’s leadership on Fresno County’s Transportation Authority “interconnected” all of Fresno County. He was chairman of the authority for more than 20 years as Highways 168 and 180 were built out as well as the extension of Highway 41, Patterson said.

“You have a legacy for Clovis, but you also have a legacy for this region,” Patterson said.

At times, Armstrong dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief as dignitaries reminisced about his service.

Mayor Nathan Magsig said that Clovis is as much about Armstrong’s vision as a long-time leader and five-time mayor.

“I know in Harry’s heart a lot of his identity is tied to Clovis, and to me that’s a magical thing,” he told Armstrong from the dais. But “when I look at Clovis and what it is today, really Clovis’s identity is in (him), and regardless what happens that will never change.”

In his final vote, Armstrong was part of a unanimous council decision to have an election to replace him with a two-year seat in the March 7 city election. Armstrong’s seat was supposed to expire in 2019.

Two other council seats are expiring in 2017. Magsig will become a member of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, making it the first time since 2001 that two council seats are being vacated in Clovis. Council Member Lynne Ashbeck says she will run for reelection.

In parting, Armstrong let the standing room-only audience in the council chambers know he did nothing alone.

“I’ve always said, it’s not what I’ve done, but what the community has done,” he said, “and without all of you, none of this could have ever been accomplished.”

Staff writer John Ellis contributed to this report. Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin