Chapter 68: Purchasing Ambassador Hall
Our overseas tour of 1956 had been a long and eventful one. From Paris, we drove our car back to London—crossing the Channel, Calais to Dover, by ferry.
At the time, we had left George Meeker in charge of the London office. After checking in at the office in London, within a few days we again boarded the Queen Mary for the return voyage to the United States.
The 1956 Return Voyage
All four of the larger British and American transatlantic ships conduct table-tennis tournaments during the crossing. On most voyages I have noticed there are no real expert table-tennis players on board. But on this particular crossing there were four or five who were fairly good—among them the former Maureen Connolly, nicknamed “Little Mo,” three times women’s world champion lawn tennis player—usually ranked with Helen Wills as one of the best women tennis players of all time. Maureen was rather good at table tennis, although not of the topflight championship class she had been at lawn tennis.
As I remember, our younger son played her during the tournament, but neither he nor I remember now who won. Garner Ted had been, nine or 10 years earlier, a rather good table tennis player.
Before sailing from Southampton, Dick had sold his Hillman-Minx car, receiving almost as much for it as he had paid new two years before.
Arriving in New York, Dick purchased a new Mercedes—one of the smaller models—and drove it back to California. Garner Ted and his wife Shirley, anxious to get back to their children, flew home from New York. And Mrs. Armstrong and I drove our car—which we had taken with us to Europe—across the country. That left Mrs. Armstrong and me alone for the drive from New York to Pasadena.
I had wanted to drive through the city of my birth, Des Moines, Iowa, especially to see my uncle, Frank Armstrong, who had virtually steered my earlier life, beginning at age 18.
Death of My Uncle
Those who have read the Autobiography from the beginning will remember that, at age 18, I had put myself through a vocational-guidance analysis, and decided I belonged in the advertising profession. My Uncle Frank was the leading advertising man of the state of Iowa, and naturally I went to him for counsel and guidance. After moving to Oregon in 1924, I had seen very little of my uncle—especially after my conversion and my being drawn into the ministry—except on rare occasions when I happened to be in Des Moines.
I felt that, since he was now past 80, this might be my last opportunity to see him.
But arriving in Des Moines, I telephoned his office and learned that he had died while Mrs. Armstrong and I had been in the Middle East on this same trip. So it already was too late.
However, I felt I should at least telephone my aunt, now widowed. But she did not care to see me. She had been very cordial to me during the advertising days—whenever I was in Des Moines. But her cordiality cooled noticeably after I had entered the ministry. Now, I was disappointed to learn, it had chilled completely. I hung up the receiver, deeply disappointed.
Thousands who will be reading these words have learned this same thing by experience. When God really gets hold of one’s life—when that life becomes changed by the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit—one’s contacts, friends and especially relatives will often chill decisively. A certain underlying hostility will be sensed, if not openly displayed. Actually it is not the converted human they resent. It is the living Jesus Christ—now living His life within the converted one, who is the real object of the hostility. However, the carnal mind does not realize or understand this phase of its own working.
I felt intense sorrow and disappointment over my aunt’s cold and blunt statement that she did not care to see me. She said, icily, she had never approved of my “religion.” I had always been very deeply grateful to my uncle for his advice and counsel. It had become a long-standing feeling of affection. Someday, in a resurrection, her eyes will open. I think she will be quite astounded when they are opened to the truth.
A Fabulous Property Offered
While we were in London on this 1956 tour, before leaving for the Middle East, I received a transatlantic telephone call from Mr. Roderick Meredith at Pasadena headquarters. It was near midnight in London—but shortly before 5 p.m. in Pasadena.
He asked me whether I felt the college would like to acquire the estate of multimillionaire Hulett C. Merritt. One other 200-foot-wide property stood between this estate and the Ambassador College campus—as it then was. This Merritt property was considered the most fabulous in Pasadena. The mansion on it, built in 1905–1908, had cost $1.1 million at that time. Several years ago an architect told me that the place could not have been built for $6 million then—
The question came like a bolt out of the blue. I had always considered this fabulous property as utterly inaccessible for us. Extending the campus in that direction had not been considered in our future planning.
Mr. Merritt had died before I left Pasadena on this tour. His wife had died previously. Mr. Meredith explained that the executor of the estate was going to put it on the market, but first, privately, it was being offered to us through an insurance and real estate broker and his associates.
This broker had an offer to purchase the estate for less money than the ornamental iron fence around the Orange Grove Boulevard front of it would cost today. His proposition was that he and associates would purchase the estate at this low figure, and then donate the property to the college.
It appeared they had privately checked with some Internal Revenue people as to whether they could deduct this donation on their income taxes for something like a half million dollars. Apparently they felt assured they could. They could purchase it for less than half of that.
How Would We Use It?
My mind was doing some fast thinking. One doesn’t turn down such a gift without consideration. But how would we use it?
“Could you gain access to the place yet tonight?” I asked.
Mr. Meredith said they could.
“All right,” I replied. “I want you and Dr. Hoeh to go over there immediately. Go completely through the building. List how many rooms could be used as classrooms—and send me a telegram stating how many rooms could seat 65 or more students, how many 50 or more, how many 35 or more. Your telegram should be here by the time I wake up in the morning. Then I’ll give my decision. I wouldn’t want to accept this property unless we need it for actual college purposes—otherwise we’d have to pay taxes we can’t afford for something we couldn’t use.”
The telegram was waiting for me on arising next morning. The ornate and fabulous building would be ideally suited to become our chief classroom building of the college.
I telegraphed the decision: “Accept it.”
Plain Truth Grows
While we were on this Middle East tour, the April issue of the Plain Truth came out an enlarged magazine, and with a new front cover. This had been planned before leaving Pasadena.
Only once before, a special issue announcing the new Ambassador College, January 1947, had the Plain Truth appeared with a front cover. It merely had a masthead, with the lead article beginning on the front cover. This April 1956 number also went up to 24 pages. At the time this seemed a big leap forward. It had contained only 16 pages previously. But the 24 pages was small compared to today’s 32 pages, including cover. It was still black and white—no color printing. But it was advancing, improving, growing!
From Cairo we had a long-distance telephone talk with the Pasadena office about the Merritt property, the purchase of which had hit a snag. The heirs—all grandchildren—had rejected the price tentatively agreed to between the executor and our prospective donors. They insisted the place be sold at auction, thinking it would bring a higher price.
Returning to Pasadena, I found the broker and his associates had bought the property at the auction. They had made the high bid, which was only slightly more than their original purchase offer. However, it seemed their funds were not immediately available, and our office had loaned them $5,000 to bind their bid.
Saving Ambassador Hall
The auction purchase terms had been one half down, with the balance spread over some seven or eight years. The due date for the balance of the one-half down payment had come due, but our prospective donors still had not had the funds available. They had obtained a 30-day extension.
I contacted these people. They assured me the money would be available by the final extended due date. A week before that date I contacted the broker again by telephone. He was positively reassuring. Two days before the deadline date I was becoming quite concerned.
“My associates and I will be in Pasadena with the money day after tomorrow,” he said, positively, over the telephone. “Everything has worked out all right. Don’t worry about it.”
I had told him that, having gone this far, I did not want to lose this valuable property. It had totally changed our general master planning for the campus. I told him that, if his people were going to come up short, I wanted time to raise the money myself, rather than lose it.
The crucial day arrived. Our would-be donors were on hand, but the necessary funds were not. They had flunked out completely.
I went to the executor, who had been Mr. Merritt’s business manager. I asked for another 30-day extension to allow time for me to raise the money.
“But this matter is in probate court,” he said, “and another 30-day delay in meeting the obligation would undoubtedly cancel out this purchase, and open the property up to another auction. Some of the people building these multiple-family garden apartments along the boulevard now regret they didn’t bid higher. In another auction they would bid up as high as necessary to acquire this property. They realize now that it went for too low a bid.”
Nevertheless, he called his attorney. The attorney agreed with his opinion, but felt they might give me a 10-day extension.
I was under pressure, but we managed it. I had an offer of a $20,000 loan from a loyal co-worker, and I had borrowed $30,000 at the bank, neither of which, on the 10th day, I needed. I did accept the $30,000 bank loan, however, and then left it on deposit at the bank to improve our credit standing. It was worth paying the interest.
And so the fabulous Merritt property, which had been named “Villa Merritt Olivier,” became ours, and was renamed “Ambassador Hall.”
New Academic Center
To leap far ahead of this chronicle of events for a moment, two exceedingly beautiful ultramodern new classroom buildings were later built flanking Ambassador Hall and the formal Italian sunken garden, with a magnificent plaza in the center, joining the three buildings and the Italian garden into an outstanding academic center. One of the new buildings is our Science Hall, the other the Fine Arts Building. The entire grouping was named in memory of my wife of 50 years, the Loma D. Armstrong Academic Center. An oil portrait of her now hangs in the grand hall of Ambassador Hall.
Escrow at the bank on the purchase of the Ambassador Hall property finally closed October 29, 1956. The 4-acre estate was then ours.
Manor Del Mar Acquired
Meanwhile, we had ourselves negotiated another important purchase of former Merritt property through the executor of the estate. This fine property, a block to the south of the campus as it then existed, had been the three-story mansion of Lewis J. Merritt, father of Hulett C. Merritt. This property, too, was obtained at a very low price and on very favorable terms. An extensive remodeling job was undertaken at once, and two large rooms were added. This property was named Manor Del Mar, since it was located on Del Mar Boulevard, which forms the south boundary of the campus as it is today. Manor Del Mar became our number one men’s student residence.
After returning from the European trip, my elder son, Richard David, joined Roderick C. Meredith in a long-planned evangelistic series of meetings at Fresno, California, with splendid success.
Dick Needed a Wife
Dick had spent many months—including most of two dreary, lonesome winters—alone in London. Those of us in the family, as well as students and faculty, had somehow neglected writing him most of the time. Dick had come to feel the desperate need of a wife. He was now 28. It just seemed that the right girl had never come along.
Meanwhile there was a young married man from Iowa here attending college classes. His wife was very pretty. Mrs. Armstrong had become fond of her. This woman had a younger sister, attending university in Omaha. Mrs. Armstrong had heard glowing reports on the younger sister, Lois Lemon, and had shown a picture of her to Dick.
Sensing his mother’s interest in the girl from Omaha, Dick immediately set up a prejudice against her in his mind. Much as he felt the need of a wife, Dick was not going to let his mother select her for him. But meanwhile Mrs. Armstrong and Miss Lemon’s sister were doing their best by letters to interest Lois in the advantages of Ambassador College.
Would GOD Select a Wife?
During the two years previous to this time I had had a number of talks with Dick about the matter of marriage. I had counseled him to simply put this problem in God’s hands, and rely on God to bring him and the right girl together. I had urged him not to rush blindly into any romance.
Even before I had been converted—had come to really know God, His truth and His ways—in my carnal-minded days I had somehow realized that God had given me my wife. I did not “pick her out.” Even before conversion I did pray occasionally. Everything about those prayers, however, was selfish—except one thing: I always thanked God for giving me my wife!
Dick always agreed with me that he should “leave it in God’s hands.” He asked me to pray that God would work it out in the right way. I knew that he had asked others to pray for this same solution. But even though Dick was willing to have God provide his wife, he was not willing to have his mother pick her out. This, of course, was only human nature at work. Most any other young man would react the same way.
While Dick was on his field assignment in southern Texas that winter, Lois arrived on campus and registered to attend classes beginning the second semester. Mrs. Armstrong just could not resist calling Dick long distance.
“Now wait a moment, Loma,” I said to her. “If you want to talk to Dick a while, go ahead and call him. I’d like to talk to him, too. But whatever you do, don’t say one word about Lois being here. You’ll only drive him the other way if you do.”
Mrs. Armstrong partially heeded my advice. But not altogether! She just would not resist mentioning, in a tone supposed to be very nonchalant, casual, disinterested and incidental, “By the way, Lois Lemon is here, and has registered for classes.”
That did it!
She didn’t sound one whit casual or incidental to Dick.
When Dick returned to campus a few weeks later, he avoided Lois as though she were poison.
It seemed that everyone on campus sensed “romance in the air” between Dick and Lois as soon as Lois arrived. It seemed just like a “natural” to everyone. Naturally, Lois had sensed this from talking to the girls. This set Lois against Dick just as positively as he had set his mind against her.
So they went around, each determined to avoid the other.
After about two weeks, I called Dick to my office.
“Dick,” I said, “years ago when I had been reduced to the depths of financial depression, just after my conversion, I had prayed earnestly for God to provide me with a new overcoat—among other things. We then lived in Portland, Oregon. It was in January, and cold. I needed an overcoat seriously, so I asked God for it. The next day I stopped at my brother’s office a moment. He noticed the big hole in the side of my overcoat.
“‘Herb,’ he said, ‘you need a new overcoat. Today is the 20th of January, and Meier & Frank have a sale on overcoats. Anything I charge on my charge account beginning today will not be billed until March 1. I’ll have until March 10 to pay and keep my credit good. Go over and select an overcoat, and during noon-hour I’ll come over and have it charged on my account.’
“But I resisted immediately. It would be rather humiliating to have my younger brother buy me an overcoat.
“‘Oh no, Russ,’ I said, ‘I couldn’t let you do that!’
“And just at that instant it flashed to my mind, almost as if God Himself were speaking and saying, ‘Didn’t you ask me for a new overcoat? And now you don’t want to take it the way I am giving it to you!’”
“So instantly,” I continued, to Dick, “I changed my mind and told Russell I would do as he said. And now, Dick, didn’t you pray and ask God to send you the right wife of His choice? And didn’t you ask me to pray for it, too—and even several others? And here you are, when everyone on campus seems to just know that Lois is the answer to that prayer, you are avoiding her like the plague!”
Just Two Dates Only?
“Now I don’t want to intervene in your most personal problems, Dick, or try to pick out your wife for you. But I do say that after you asked God about this, and have prayed about it so long, you are acting rather foolishly to completely and coldly avoid Lois altogether. Now all that I’m going to ask you, Dick, is this: I ask you to get a date with Lois—just once.
“OK, Dad,” he said rather sheepishly. “I’ll do as you say.”
That same evening Dick had a date with Lois. But he did not do as I said, fully. He did not wait a whole week for the next date. Their next date was the very next night! And for the next few weeks they were seen together quite frequently.
One day in March, Dick and Lois came to Mrs. Armstrong and me, hand-in-hand.
“Dad and Mom,” said Dick, “we’ve got something to tell you!”
Of course, we knew what it was!
“We’re going to be married,” Dick announced.
Later he told me what had happened.
That afternoon they had gone for a talk in Dick’s car. Suddenly Dick pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car.
“Lois,” he said, “I can’t stand this any longer. I’ve been fighting this, trying to steel my mind against liking you, and trying to resist it—but I can’t resist it any longer. I know I’m in love with you!”
And he said that Lois then said she had been fighting against him in the same way—and she couldn’t resist it any longer, either.
So then they drove straight to tell Dick’s mother and me they were going to be married.
The Happy Wedding
I performed the ceremony, as I had for our other three children, on June 11, 1957, in the outdoor garden theater on the Ambassador College campus, with a reception at our home afterward.
Dick and Lois took a honeymoon trip up to Oregon, the scene of his early boyhood. Meanwhile I had given them a little help in purchasing a small but very nice new home, which was ready for them on their return. Their marriage lasted just a little more than a year—when it was suddenly and unexpectedly cut off by Dick’s untimely death resulting from an automobile crash while Dick was out on a baptizing tour.
But they lived a rather full lifetime in that one year. And Dick left behind a little 3-month-old son, Richard David ii.