Ellis L. Armstrong is a stranger only to obscurity.
His resume reads more like that of a panel of civil engineering experts than of a single man. At 74, he's running out of wall space in his house to hang diplomas, citations and honorary degrees _ but he's not running out of steam.
So while our column is usually dedicated to a once-well-known person who has disappeared from the public eye, a brief story about Armstrong tells of a man who the limelight simply refuses to abandon.
The opening sentence of an opinion about the Little Dell Dam project he re- cently published in the Deseret News could easily be his theme: "In good conscience I must comment . . ."
And comment he does, but always with a twinkle in his eye, punctuating his sentences with a chuckle.
Few civil engineers make a name for themselves that is as lasting as the projects they build, but anyone who speaks of dams, tunnels and highways knows Armstrong _ not only because of his past, but because he's still around, keeping up with his past while teaching the next generation of civil engineers at the University of Utah.
In his cubbyhole office at the U., Armstrong leans back in his desk chair and chortles while recounting the jobs he's had _ any one of which could have been a career.
The Cedar City native graduated from Utah State University, earned master's and doctorate degrees, then went to work for the Bureau of Reclamation where he was the materials engineer for dams like Moon Lake, Pine View and Deer Creek. Later he was the bureau's chief engineer in Denver for three years before the Interior Department "loaned" him to the Egyptian-American Rural Improvement Service to build a dam on the Nile.
Then, in the mid-1950s he was pro-ject engineer of the St. Lawrence Power and Seaway Project.
Armstrong worked on the St. Lawrence project from 1954 to 1957, when he returned to Utah to become the state's Director of Highways.
From 1958 to 1961 Armstrong was the Commerce Department's Commissioner of Public Roads in Washington D.C., until he devised a re-structuring plan at the inception of the federal Interstate Highway Program. "I may be the only bureaucrat to have eliminated my own job," he said, still chuckling.
Next he was building airports, highways and other major civil engineering projects around the globe for a firm that changed names several times while Armstrong was with it: Porter, O'Brien, Consulting Engineers, at first; then Porter, O'Brien and Armstrong; and Porter, Armstrong and Ripa Associates. Finally it became Armstrong Associates by the time he left in 1968 to become assistant regional director, then soon after regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation in Salt Lake City during the Nixon administration.
As chairman of the American Public Works Association's bicentennial commission, Armstrong "hibernated for two years" researching and writing "History of Public Works in the United States," a book outlining the public works accomplishments since 1776.
Armstrong talks in such detail about his involvement with politics and public works that the book could have been dictated off the cuff. Several books written about public works have been published as a result of interviews authors have had with Armstrong.
His office at the U. is nearly bare, yet he retrieves articles, pamphlets, books, editorials, teaching materials and other publications of his one after the other from desk drawers and shelves with hardly a break in the conversation.
His memory of the first days of construction on the interstate system are so fresh it hardly seems possible concrete on the roads could be dry. "We were moving 20 million cubic yards of rock a day."
Ironically, the interstate network just now is being finished. "Eighteen years behind schedule," he says recalling how the war in Vietnam shifted the nation's priorities from infrastructure to Indochina. Then came fuel-efficient cars that slowed highway construction because drivers were paying less for federal road taxes as they bought less gasoline.
Armstrong is now working on an introspective study of the interstate system. His biggest stumbling block is finding people, like himself, who were involved when the program started. "Most of them are dead," he said with a laugh.
Armstrong has his students studying the light rail proposal for mass transit in the Salt Lake Valley. It's a good idea, he believes, as long as you have the future in view and accept the idea that a commuter train system will only move 2 percent of the drivers from the road to rail. "It won't work until 2020. Things are still too spread out. You have to have more concentrated destinations."
Utah currently has 110 vehicles for every 100 drivers. "There's too much freedom in an automobile to want to switch." He likes the way the Utah Transit Authority is trying to attract more riders. "I'm impressed with the way they're running it, but the buses are not being used."
Armstrong is just as quick with his opinions about the Central Utah Project.
President Jimmy Carter brought a score of environmentalists to the White House and almost killed the CUP, Armstrong said. Carter put Utah's $2 billion federal water project on his infamous "hit list." Armstrong said public power versus private power battles and new environmental provisions brought into the CUP's legislative picture by Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, could end up being a Carter flashback.
"He's a good guy," Armstrong says of Owens, "but he doesn't understand some things so well."
There's no malice in Armstrong's critiques of the status of the interstate program, state highways, flood control measures or the CUP, just as there's no bitterness in the way he recalls being asked to resign from his job as BOR National Director during Nixon's turbulent second term.
The John Ehrlichman-H.R. Haldeman power struggle was on. Secretary of Interior Rogers Morton called all of his underlings into his office one at a time and said: "The president has asked me to advise you he's accepted your resignation," Armstrong recalls.
"I wrote a one-line resignation and a guy from the White House came to me and asked me to write a longer resignation letter that said how much I enjoyed working for the president and so on. I told him to go straight to hell," Armstrong said _ still chuckling.