This Land Is His Land: Remembering Bob Armstrong

Bob Armstrong doubled Texas' park acreage, hosted legendary campouts in Liberty Hill, and created the famous Austin queso dip that bears his name.
Matt Wright-Steel
Bob Armstrong doubled Texas' park acreage, hosted legendary campouts in Liberty Hill, and created the famous Austin queso dip that bears his name.

Mention the name Bob Armstrong and chances are, even now that he’s gone, the response will be a smile and then a story. Like the story former Gov. Mark White tells about the 1982 gubernatorial primary when he and Armstrong were rivals, along with a third candidate, Buddy Temple.

During a dinner at an Amarillo auction barn with some 300 people in attendance, Armstrong spoke first. “I’m the only person in this race who knows which end of a cow gets up first,” he told the audience of mostly rural Panhandle Texans.

“He froze me right there,” White recalled. “That’s the kind of deal where you’re either all right or all wrong.” White said he excused himself to go to the restroom, but instead hustled back to the cattle pens and frantically looked for a cow lying down. He couldn’t find one.

Despite his bovine ignorance, White went on to win the gubernatorial race, but he also went on to appoint his former rival to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1985. “He was absolutely the warmest, sweetest man I’ve ever known,” the former governor said, “but when he had something he wanted to do, he was very forceful.”

White had in mind Armstrong’s signature accomplishment, the state’s purchase of the 212,000-acre ranch adjacent to Big Bend National Park, a purchase that more than doubled the total park acreage in Texas. For Armstrong, the acquisition of the ranch was the culmination of a 17-year dream, which made it especially fitting when, in 2014, the ranch headquarters building was named the Bob Armstrong Visitor Center.

Armstrong also was one of the founders of the Sierra Club’s Austin chapter and was a fly fisherman, a pilot, a white-water canoeist, a camper, a hunter, a bird-watcher, an outdoor photographer and a golfer.  “I’ve never known anyone who loved life more than Bob,” said Mary Beth Rogers, who worked for Armstrong at the Land Office and later served as Gov. Ann Richards’s chief of staff.

He died Sunday night in Austin of congestive heart failure, just a few hours before Texas Independence Day. He was 82. His wife of 31 years, Linda Aaker, was at his bedside, as were his sons Landis and Will. His daughters, Martha Louise Armstrong and Shannon Armstrong, arrived shortly after his passing.

Robert Landis Armstrong was born and raised in Austin, where his father was a Ford dealer and Austin city councilman, and his mother was a teacher. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Texas at Austin, served at sea with the U.S. Navy from 1953 to 1955 and was elected to the Texas House in 1963, where he developed a reputation as an “environmentalist” at a time when the term was either suspect or unknown in the Lone Star State.

In 1970, he was elected Texas land commissioner and served virtually unopposed for the next dozen years. Under his leadership, he managed to hold successful oil and gas lease sales, even though the industry had by then discovered who the environmentalists were and dealings between the two camps were strained, to say the least. He also increased royalties paid to the University of Texas as chairman of the Board for Lease of University Lands. In addition, he was the person primarily responsible for crafting the Coastal Zone Management Program, thereby setting the stage for its eventual passage under his successor, Garry Mauro.

The acquisition of the Big Bend ranch was a monumental achievement. Armstrong was well aware that the ranch was a remarkable place, home to rare plants and animals, more than a hundred springs, hundreds of unexplored Indian ruins and the second- and third-highest waterfalls in Texas. As columnist Dave McNeely tells the story, when ranch owner Robert O. Anderson, board chairman of Atlantic Richfield Co., was ready to part with it, Armstrong was ready to buy it. He quickly found out that some lawmakers weren’t so eager. “We ain’t buyin’ no ranch,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman A.M. Aikin told him.

Fifteen years later, when White named Armstrong to the Parks and Wildlife board of directors, “the stars began to line up,” McNeely writes. Oil prices were down, as was the sale price of the ranch, and more lawmakers favored buying it. Longtime state Comptroller Bob Bullock came up with $10 million to buy the ranch, plus $1 million to raise Texas Rangers pay. In 1988, at a Parks and Wildlife board meeting, Armstrong made the motion to buy the ranch for $8.8 million. The motion passed unanimously.

“That was just brute force on his part, and it was a great accomplishment,” White recalled.

Armstrong served as natural resources and energy advisor to Gov. Ann Richards from 1991 until 1993, when President Bill Clinton named him assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the Department of the Interior. He worked in Washington for the next five years before returning to Austin.

“Bob was of a generation of truly remarkable public servants that included people like John Hannah, Bill Hobby, Sens. Ray Farabee and Babe Schwartz—and  so many others who joined intellect and wit to a generous sense of the public good,” said Bill Cryer, who served as Richards’ press secretary.  “They seemed to enjoy their roles and brought a sense of purpose and fun to politics. And, not coincidentally, won elections.  Texas is a much better place because of Bob Armstrong. That cannot be said of many.”

Cryer is right, of course, and yet it’s the Armstrong stories that his countless friends and his family members are most likely to recall.

For Cherry Kugle of Austin, briefly a GLO employee during Armstrong’s tenure, stories about the famed Armstrong Campouts on his ranch north of Liberty Hill are what immediately come to mind. The gatherings began in 1971 and are held during the weekend closest to Texas Independence Day.

“On Saturday around noon,” she recalled, “everyone who can-who is there, who is awake, who can stand–gathers around a very tall flag pole fashioned from a slender tree trunk in the pasture that was in the middle of the camping area. We sing ‘Texas, Our Texas’ as the Texas flag is raised, and no one ever knows all the words. . . . You look out for each other’s kids and dogs and feed one another and share your flask or bottle around the fire. People get drunk and misbehave and sometimes fall in the fire. They are pulled out and the party continues. Over the years, relationships have been forged, marriages have been broken and much, much epic fun has been created.”

Kugle added:  “Bob singing ‘Rosalie’s Good Eats Café’ used to make my dad [Bill Kugle] declare: ‘That is fucking poetry!'”

“God bless Bob Armstrong for creating this magic,” Cherry Kugle said. “Just one of the many wonderful things he did in his life.”

Jan Reid recalls that it was Armstrong, during his campaign for governor, who persuaded Ann Richards to make her first run for public office. He called her on a Saturday morning in January 1982; she told him she was still in bed. He told her she needed to run for state treasurer, because the current officeholder, Warren Harding, was in trouble with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s Public Integrity Unit.

Her response, was, “Bob, you’re crazy.” She also told him she had no idea what the state treasurer did.

Armstrong would not be dissuaded, as Reid recounted in Let the People In, his biography of Richards: “‘Listen,’ he argued. ‘If Warren Harding has been treasurer, you can be treasurer. We’re going to be in a fix if Warren Harding is indicted; it will be an embarrassment to have him on the Democratic ticket.’ A corruption scandal involving a Democratic statewide officeholder would hardly boost his chances in the governor’s race. ‘And,’ he went on cheerfully, ‘I think it’s time for a woman to run statewide.'”

“He was a wonderful, endearing character,” said Andy Sansom, a close associate of Armstrong’s on the Big Bend Ranch acquisition. “Those who knew him well coined a verb based on his travel behavior: ‘Armadillowing.’ Bob never seemed to be able to go anywhere in a straight line, always seeing interesting things along the way that would divert his attention.”

Sansom, the state’s former Parks and Wildlife commissioner, had this to say about his old friend: “He was also, along with Garry Mauro, who succeeded him, the only Texas land commissioner who ever showed any interest in the environment, and his legacy in that regard continues today.”

Most Texans, of course, aren’t aware of that legacy. They’re more likely to know that he’s the guy with a cheese dip named after him at Austin’s legendary Tex-Mex restaurant, Matt’s El Rancho. Mary Beth Rogers, a friend as well as employee, was present at the dip creation. Her boss, she recalled, would usually “head out to Matt’s” two or three times a week, usually with herself and Bebe Champ in tow.

“As soon as we’d get seated,” she recalled, “Bob would wander off. (He did a lot of that!) Within a few minutes he would head back from the kitchen with a big grin on his face, with this wonderful mixture of queso, meat, salsa, sour cream, guacamole and God knows what else. Matt Jr., who was a friend of Bob’s, would usually come back with him, sit for a while and talk. Over time, people who had gone to lunch there with Bob would start asking for the dip Bob Armstrong put together.”

“The dip became integral to the menu, and Armstrong wasn’t shy about letting people know it was named for him,” Patrick Beach wrote in the Austin American-Statesman obituary.

Beach quoted Armstrong’s son, Will: “Once a politician, always a politician. To the end, he’d go over there and walk around and he’d say, ‘Hey, is that Bob Armstrong dip you’re eating? Well, I’m Bob Armstrong.'”

He was, indeed.

Armstrong was looking forward to this year’s campout, scheduled for the weekend beginning Friday, Feb. 27. Told the campout had been canceled due to icy roads, he responded with characteristic optimism:

“Well, maybe we can have it next weekend.”

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Published at 9:20 am CST