- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Much-admired Austin philanthropist James Armstrong died Monday of natural causes. He was 85.
Armstrong gave millions to the arts, social services and other causes. Among his favored beneficiaries were Zach Theatre, Austin Opera, Austin Symphony, Ballet Austin, Long Center for the Arts, Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum and the Armstrong Community Music School.
“I loved James’ natural warmth, honesty and engaging charm,” said Margaret Perry, head of the Armstrong School. “His deep passion for the missions of the organizations he so generously supported was touching and inspiring. He set the standard for philanthropy in our community.”
A businessman and art collector with West Texas ties whose mother encouraged an interest in the arts, Armstrong moved easily among the various social strata of Austin and Houston. He and his husband, Larry Connelly, a retired teacher and principal, welcomed folks into their West Austin home, but they also made classy, witty and kind impressions on the city’s social circuit.
“James was a person of supreme grace, elegance and generosity,” said social advocate Carla McDonald. “A champion of so many important causes, he set the bar where giving back is concerned. There is not a person who lives in — or has visited — Austin who hasn’t been the beneficiary of his extraordinary generosity. Simply put, Austin wouldn’t be Austin without him and, like all who knew him, I will miss him terribly.”
Born in Fort Worth in 1932, Armstrong earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University and married Jane Bradford in 1954 Midland, where he was involved in the oil and gas industry. There, the couple raised children Brad, Elizabeth and Tony. All three children survive him. Armstrong and Bradford divorced in 1975.
While working in real estate and banking in Houston, he met Connelly. They lived together for 30 years and married in 2015.
In Houston, Armstrong got to know opera star Beverly Sills, and he went on to serve on the board of the New York City Opera.
“James believed so strongly in the importance of having lively arts in Austin,” Austin Symphony music director Peter Bay said. “So he generously supported so many artistic organizations. He also in his quietly kind way convinced others to do so by setting an example.”
Recent Austin Opera board leader Wendi Kushner agrees.
“James was a true gentleman in every sense of that word,” Kushner said. “He was keenly aware of the transformative power of music and was a friend and supporter to so many arts organizations in Austin. The music school that bears his name is the perfect lasting tribute to this wonderful man.”
Armstrong and Connelly recently hosted a preview of Zach’s new season at their home.
“James understood art, he lived (with) it, and he celebrated artists with his support,” said Dave Steakley, artistic director at Zach. “He has been so important to the Austin arts scene and to Zach because he was often the first to support an endeavor with a major gift, and once James gave, then many other civic leaders also fell in line to give. There would not be a Topfer Theatre at Zach without James and Larry.”
Armstrong also supported social service groups such as Hospice Austin, Project Transitions, AIDS Services of Austin, Center for Child Protection, Habitat for Humanity, Anti-Defamation League of Austin, the Thinkery and University of Texas College of Fine Arts.
“We rise in a sustained standing ovation for James Armstrong,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler in a tweet. “His life was a stellar performance. Our thoughts are with Larry and the family.”
Connelly threw a memorable 80th birthday bash for Armstrong at the Driskill Hotel in 2012. Texas swing musician Ray Benson sang “Happy Birthday” and Zach performers rendered standard tunes. Not many 80th birthdays end with dancing late into the night.
In fact, Armstrong, whose health had deteriorated over the years due to Parkinson’s disease, attended more than one dinner party in the past weeks because he felt on the mend.
Fellow philanthropist Richard Hartgrove said, “The Austin nonprofit world just lost one of its giants.”
No memorial has yet been announced.