Mitchell: Ernest Armstrong led the way

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Some activists lead marches.

Others lead the way.

Ernest Armstrong was one of the latter.

“He was intellectual, very sociable, loved people and always tried to help people better themselves and be involved in community activities or political activities that he thought would make a difference in the long run especially for black people,” said his wife, Suzanne Armstrong, in an interview.

Ernest Armstrong passed away on Christmas Eve of heart failure.

Suzanne, a white woman who grew up in South Shore and Ernest, a black activist whose father was a Pullman porter, met in 1975 while working at The University of Chicago Hospital.

“It was almost like love at first sight,” Suzanne said.

OPINION

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The couple married in 1981 and had a daughter. Both had children from previous relationships.

“People were like ‘You shoot pool with him, you’ll never win. You play Ping-Pong with him, you’ll never win. You play basketball with him (he’s only 5-feet-9) but you’ll never win.’ It was like everything he picked up he could do it,” Suzanne said.

A pharmacist by trade, Armstrong served as director of pharmacy at Provident and Jackson Park hospitals.

Armstrong was born in Atlanta on May 28, 1942, but grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. He graduated from Howard University. He also earned an MBA from Northwestern University.

“His primary usage of his MBA was to get to be a director of pharmacy. There were hardly any African-American directors of pharmacy in Chicago at that time,” his wife said.

When his health began to fail, Armstrong switched his focus to economic development.

“He was active with Webb Evans and his organization, the United American Progress Association, and doing things similar to that on his own with everybody that he knew,” she said.

In 2010, Armstrong and his wife decided to invest in a deserted strip of East 75th Street. The couple opened The Quarry, the only private event venue in the South Shore community.

Initially they took over a space from a man who was leaving town. When they were unable to buy the property for what they considered to be a reasonable price, the Armstrongs looked for a space on 75th Street large enough to accommodate a banquet hall and a restaurant. They settled on a large storefront at 2423 E. 75th St.

The Quarry opened officially with all the licenses in October 2014.

Because of her husband’s declining health, Suzanne has been the driving force behind the venture.

“Because of our struggles with contractors and people who took advantage of [Ernest’s] good nature, we ended up with financial difficulties that I didn’t anticipate,” Suzanne, said.

Those difficulties, which include unpaid taxes, may force her to close The Quarry, though she is desperately trying to keep the doors open.

“He was definitely focused on the success of [The Quarry]. He saw that as his legacy for our children,” Suzanne said.

Armstrong donated his body to medical research. His eternal optimism will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on Jan. 12 at The Quarry.

“One thing that everybody is going to remember about Ernest is even when he was really sick, people would ask: ‘How are you doing?’ He would say, ‘Great, and getting better’,” his wife said.

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