Page County Auditor Melissa Wellhausen hopes Elaine Armstrong does not change her ways once she officially leaves her position as Page County Supervisor in a matter of days.
Working with her since Wellhausen got her job in 2011, Wellhausen hopes that Armstrong will still keep other people first in mind.
“She always looked at it as a public servant,” she said about Armstrong’s attitude, the Clarinda native who has served as supervisor since 1996.
Earlier this year, Armstrong announced she wouldn’t run for another term as supervisor, stating she has done enough.
Her years of service, plus her involvement with other entities, is why Armstrong is the Clarinda Herald-Journal Person of the Year for 2016.
She was elected as a write-in candidate in a special election Feb. 13, 1996, to fill an unexpired term. There were two other people on the ballot. She was the first ever woman Page County had as a supervisor.
“I’ve always had family and worked here,” she said when she announced her decision not to run again. “I’ve never had a desire to go anywhere else. I was in 4-H and saw 4-H leaders. I was in Sunday School at it had teachers. I guess it was a collective thing. Even my father would go around and help neighbors.”
Armstrong’s contributions to the town were probably inspired when she was a reporter for the Herald-Journal. She worked for the newspaper, the first time, from 1967 to 1989 and then returned for a second stint from 1991 to 1996. She resigned soon after the election.
That job reminded her of some good advice she said she read.
“I had lots of opportunities. You see all these things and then you are invited to join them. When I arrived at my first day at the Herald-Journal I saw a little sign that read, ‘Service is the rent you pay for the space you occupy.’ I keep talking about that. We have to have a servant’s heart.”
And creating that blend between the county issues and at the state-level through the committees as a supervisor is a challenge.
“The job is not just attending a weekly meeting at the court house, but serving on a number of regional and area committees and boards,” she said. “Coming with these assigned boards are taking turns in leadership roles and devoting time to each group’s efforts and interests. Availability to the public is important, being willing to listen to taxpayers’ concerns and participating in events in all parts of the county,” she said.
Wellhausen saw Armstrong work just as an elected official should.
“She doesn’t expect anything more than what she does,” she said
When not at supervisors regularly scheduled meetings on Tuesdays, Wellhausen said it’s common for Armstrong to stop in the courthouse and ask what needs to be done. Wellhausen said Armstrong prepares herself by studying in advance for annual budget meetings which begin in January.
She even comes in and does things Wellhausen didn’t expect.
“We have this joke about brownies,” Wellhausen said in a laugh. “She has come in and asked if we need anything and we’ve joked and said, ‘Yes, we need brownies.’ Well, later in the day she comes back with an actual pan of brownies.”
Two projects Armstrong helped with outside of county government include the development of the Lied Center, which falls under city of Clarinda.
Clarinda already had a swimming pool, but the concept to add a small gymnasium and exercise equipment and classes would create a recreation center.
Randy Pullen senior worked with Armstrong on the Lied Center.
“She was on the planning stages to help raise the money and plan the center. I was with the planning stages too,” he said.
The idea behind the recreation center started in 1990 when planning began.
The Clarinda Foundation told city council and the Clarinda Park Board about a community center idea. The center would be an integral part of the swimming pool. The council and Park Board favored the idea and the Foundation went to work and with the support of the community.
At that point, Lied Foundation offered $500,000 in matching funds. In a fund campaign that began in September 1991, the goal of $500,000 in matching gifts and pledges was reached by Dec. 1.
And there was more to add at the Lied Center that Armstrong contributed to. Earlier this year a walking trail wrapping around the Lied Center and a portion of City Park was complete. That had been a few years in the making.
Pullen does not think she’s done.
“She’s still on the committee for the trail and there are plans to expand,” he said.
Long-term goals for the trail are to connect it with other sections of town.
“She’s very positive. She cares about these things and always concerned about the best thing for Clarinda. She’s not a negative person at all,” he said.
Clarinda Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Elaine Farwell agrees.
“Elaine has worked diligently for the citizens of Page County. When she greets everyone, she has a smile on her face and the best interests of her fellow citizens at heart. Her positive attitude and caring spirit is a driving force when serving on committees and community projects,” Farwell said.
Farwell mentioned Armstrong helping establish the Grandma’s House Daycare Center in Clarinda and continues to serve on its board of directors.
“She has an exceptional ability to research the issues at hand, allowing her to make informed decisions. Her dedication to her work has shown that with careful thought and planning, she can make a vision a reality,” she said.
Southwest Iowa Families therapist Berneeta Wagoner has known Armstrong since the 1970s. Although the times have changed, Armstrong has not according to Wagoner.
“Two things I see with Elaine is she sees the community as a whole. She’s concerned about everything. If somebody says, ‘I’m concerned about the Shambaugh bridge,’ she’ll get back with you,” she said.
Wagoner has been impressed with how Armstrong works with some entities.
“She is head-and-shoulders responsible why we have Grandma’s House Daycare. She’s been on the board and helped them through building it. She very hands-on involved there. We wouldn’t have Grandma’s House without Elaine,” she said. “And this is way past the age she had her own children to worry about in daycare. She wonders about welfare of the kids and families.”
Wagoner said Armstrong was also an early contributor to Corner Counties Early Childhood.
“We are going to do something in Southwest Iowa to bring funding for programs to support the 0-5 (age) population. Elaine was there. She was there through most of the difficult planning, seeking initial grants. Served on the board very tirelessly from child fares, car-seat inspections and giving away bike helmets.
Wagoner speculates Armstrong may be a bit more effective with volunteer help after being a supervisor.
“I think there will be fewer distractions for her. So many people got so upset over Pierce Creek. She’s told me, ‘I’ve been cyberbullied and getting emails and messages.’ Many were negative, and I say undeserved. But they are just taking their frustration out. I’m sure she will look forward to getting out of that. But she will march ahead and do what she thinks is best.”
Serving as a county supervisor for nearly as long as she has, Jim Richardson said he was appreciative of working with Armstrong because of her commitment.
“Elaine is so dedicated. She tries so hard,” he said.
“It’s hard to comprehend how she does go about all this stuff. At times it’s frustrating, but more often than not I almost feel like shes does all of this and we depend on her,” he said.
Richardson was first elected in 1998 as his past included being a county employee in the secondary roads department.
It wasn’t long for Armstrong and Richardson to not see eye-to-eye on subjects, but still maintain a level of respect.
In the early 2000s, proposals were made by the cities of Clarinda and Shenandoah to create a lake in the middle of Page County. The lake would be a water reservoir and used for recreational purposes.
“The lake was a hot button,” Richardson said. “That was stressful on all of us and (other current supervisor) Jon (Herzberg) wasn’t there for all of it. Elaine and I were not on the same side. I wanted to see it go. She was on the other side. I think we handled it well,” he said about their working relationship.
Richardson said the lake proposal was a good example of how Armstrong approaches issues, even knowing how big, literally and figuratively, the lake was. He said she handles other issues, like a routine water-sprinkler protection plan for the courthouse, the same way.
“All of those issues define Elaine,” he said. “She does it with the same tenacity. She goes about everything with the same level of dedication.”
Jon Herzberg, the other supervisor has known Armstrong since the 1980s and met her through her days at the Herald-Journal.
Herzberg said Armstrong puts the county in a special place in her heart.
“The county has been her whole life for those 12 years I worked with her. She’s worked hard and done a lot of research and she meets the public well,” he said. “Anybody needed a volunteer, she stepped up.”
Like Richardson, Herzberg knows the potential of three different views on a subject during a supervisor meeting should not upset the relationship.
“When I first got elected, Jim and Elaine were already serving. Right away I told them, ‘I just want to make clear how I stand. I want you to understand we can agree to disagree,’” he said.
Herzberg said no matter who voted no, the working relationship was not damaged.
“If I vote against something and get over ruled, the majority voted for it. I’ll turn around and work just as hard. That’s the way you have to work. You can’t be split on the board. We’ve all three done that,” he said.
Wellhausen hopes Armstrong will continue her attitude long after she isn’t tied to anything.
“I hope she turns into a poll worker,” she said with a smile. “Now that she can.”