Remembering David J. Armstrong

We’ve said a final farewell to too many dedicated members this past year. And just as our print newsletter went out last week with remembrances of Ann Leffel and Bill Lord we learned of another passing. Just shy of 80 years old, Dave Armstrong passed away at his home in Hanover, PA on February 19, 2020.

His obituary said, ” He enjoyed nature and did volunteer work for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation and established four chestnut orchards at Codorus State Park”. This is an understatement.  He was a sweet and generous soul and he will be missed by all those he worked with at the PA/NJ Chapter.

Codorus State Park and So Much More by Mike Aucott

Those of us privileged to know Dave and to work with him realize that we’ve lost a special friend and powerful helper. The American chestnut too has lost a friend; Dave worked tirelessly to help this tree. In the mid-1990s, Dave heard the call of the chestnut. He answered that call with a perceptiveness and a capacity for hard work that was inspiring. By 1998 he was actively involved in the PA/NJ Chapter of TACF, coordinating newsletter production and contributing articles. He volunteered to manage the Chapter’s new office established in York, PA. He was instrumental in convincing Penn State University to create a space for our mission here at University Park and establish the Science Coordinator position that Sara Fitzsimmons so ably fills today. Within the last few years, Dave assumed much of the responsibility for leaf identification; he seemed always enthused to receive another “load of leaves” to identify.

In the early 2000s, Dave teamed up with Bob Leffel to hand-pollinate 16 separate crosses of Asian and surviving American trees. They planted the (F1) offspring of these crosses at Codorus State Park, and, after selecting from this planting trees that appeared blight-resistant and timber-type, planted another Codorus orchard of 600 of these F2 nuts. During this time, Dave and Bob also hand-pollinated a surviving American tree near Harrisburg, the Kelley tree, with pollen from the 200-year old surviving Amherst tree in Virginia. They established another orchard at Codorus SP with the F1 offspring of these American trees. Dave made good use of the stems of trees culled from these orchards by turning them into richly fashioned walking sticks, which he loved to give away.

Dave began what became a marathon nut harvesting and distribution effort, giving thousands of Kelley-Amherst nuts to school districts and others and providing over 8000 Asian-American F2 nuts to growers who volunteered to be part of what has become known as the Recurrent Selection Timber (RST) Program. The RST program’s focus is the development of a tree that is blight-resistant and has a timber form and growth, without specific concern for American-type appearance and other characteristics. With TACF’s renewed focus on genetics, the RST program may help provide new insights into the relationship between genotype and phenotype, via a sampling and analysis effort now being developed with the first RST F2 orchard at Codorus.

Dave lived long enough to see his beloved family thrive and expand to include grandchildren and to see many of his efforts with TACF develop and thrive. To those of us who knew him, his death seems to have come too soon. Yet his passing brings home a valuable perspective; that is working to preserve the form and function of the American chestnut, we are aligned with a species that exists on a different time scale than human life; we are intertwined with forces that will play out in deep time. Dave’s departure is a reminder that our journey will be a long one, and that we will lose dear friends along the way. Let Dave’s palpable love of life, ever-present sense of humor, and fearlessness in the face of hard work inspire us to carry on with hope and vigor.