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James Armstrong, 73; Mayor and Teacher


James R. Armstrong, the high school government teacher who put theory into practice by getting elected to the Torrance City Council and then serving as mayor, has died. He was 73.

Armstrong, a councilman for six years and mayor for eight before his retirement from politics in 1986, died Friday at Harbor UCLA Medical Center of congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Dr. Julie A. Armstrong.

Although the mayor's post he held from 1978 to 1986 is largely ceremonial, Armstrong was so well-known for his rapport with federal, state and local politicians that he was able to accomplish a good deal for the city.

A Torrance Chamber of Commerce poll in 1980 ranked him as the most influential man in the area. And in 1982, Harvey Schecter, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Times: "He may not have real power, but he has a lot of symbolic power."

At Schecter's recommendation, the ADL gave Armstrong its Distinguished Public Service Award because he had spoken out forcefully against bigotry in Torrance.

During Armstrong's tenure as mayor, he doubled city park space and worked for more senior citizen housing and the environmental protection of the Madrona Marsh.

Educated at Pepperdine University and UCLA, Armstrong taught U.S. government at Torrance High School from 1954 to 1986. He gradually began applying what he taught to governing his community. He served on the Torrance Beautiful Commission and the city Planning Commission before winning election to the City Council by a wide margin in 1972.

Teaching government, Armstrong told The Times as a new councilman in 1973, was "the perfect foundation" for government service. While on the council, he continued teaching, often assigning students to attend the Tuesday night council meetings and then discussing the issues in the classroom the next day. He also served simultaneously as district representative for Rep. Charles H. Wilson (D-Torrance), giving him insight and input on federal legislation.

Regardless of how thoroughly Armstrong understood the concepts of governance, however, after he began practicing it, he conceded, "I had a few surprises.

"It takes time to get things done," he said, adding that the city government process can be downright "ponderous."

A Democrat, Armstrong was often mentioned as an attractive possible candidate for higher office. But he dismissed such talk, saying he did not want to "punish myself" by waging a losing battle against the area's strong incumbents.

"I was elected to be mayor of the city, and I will not jeopardize what might be in the city's best interest for something that might be in my best interest," he said in 1983.

"When my term as mayor ends, I expect to ... go out with [wife] Anne and have a steak. Then I'll fade out of the public light."

Armstrong did essentially that. He retired from teaching and politics and became a consultant and lobbyist, first for the development firm Real Property Resources Inc. and then for his own Armstrong Associates.

He is survived by his wife of 45 years; sons Jim of Morgan Hill, Calif., and Jeff of Mooresville, N.C.; daughter Julie of Los Angeles; and several grandchildren.

The funeral was private. A public memorial service is being planned for February. The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Torrance Education Foundation or to the American Heart Assn.

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