Armstrong, John B(arclay)
Armstrong, John B(arclay)
Armstrong was born in San Antonio, Texas, but grew up on the Armstrong Ranch in Armstrong, Texas. He was the son of Charles M. Armstrong, a rancher, and Lucy (Carr) Armstrong, a homemaker. Armstrong had two brothers and a sister. As a boy he worked on the ranch and learned the business that his father maintained. The Armstrong Ranch was a family enterprise that had been started by Armstrong’s grandfather, the legendary Texas Ranger John Barclay Armstrong, with $4,000 in reward money that had been paid for the capture of a notorious outlaw. Armstrong attended the Texas Military Institute (TMI) in San Antonio, Texas, the oldest Episcopal college preparatory school in the Southwest. After graduating from TMI in 1937, Armstrong attended the University of Texas at Austin, from which he eventually obtained a bachelor’s degree.
In 1944 Armstrong married Henrietta Larkin, the great-granddaughter of Captain Richard King, founder of the King Ranch. The couple had four children, three sons and a daughter. Armstrong followed in his father’s footsteps by working on the Armstrong family ranch before striking out on his own in 1948, developing ranching operations in Texas and Alabama. He was president of the Santa Gertrudis Breeders International (SGBI) from 1957 to 1959. This presidency was a significant position for a cattleman who had married into the King family, because the Santa Gertrudis breed of beef cattle had made the King Ranch’s reputation in animal husbandry. The breed, named for the Spanish land grant in southern Texas where the King Ranch was established, was the first American breed of cattle to receive official recognition from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It began in 1910 when the ranch started to systematically cross its British Shorthorn cattle with Brahman bulls from India. After Armstrong completed his term as president of SGBI, he served as regional vice president of the American National Cattlemen’s Association (ANCA; now the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association or NCBA) from 1959 to 1961. From 1962 until 1969 he chaired the Beef Industry Council (BIC) of the National Livestock and Meat Board. The BIC eventually merged with ANCA to form the NCBA in 1996.
In the early 1960s Armstrong became involved in local and state politics, serving as chair of the Kleberg County Republican Party in 1963 and running unsuccessfully for the office of State Agriculture Commissioner of Texas in 1964. Despite losing the election, he remained active in state and local politics for the remainder of his life. He served as a trustee of TMI from 1964 until 1975 and was named an outstanding alumnus of the school. Armstrong was also keenly interested in polo, so much so that he held the office of vice chairman of the United States Polo Association from 1960 to 1962.
Armstrong became executive vice president of operations for the King Ranch in 1977. By the late 1970s this position had become one of the most demanding jobs in ranch management anywhere in the United States, as the King Ranch had diversified as well as expanded its businesses far beyond the cattle- and horse-breeding programs that had been its mainstay in the early part of the twentieth century. As early as 1934 the King family had negotiated several long-term leases with the Humble Oil and Refining Company (now ExxonMobil) for oil and gas rights to King Ranch property as a way to pay off debts during the Depression era. After World War II the King Ranch not only purchased land in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Mississippi to support its beef cattle production but also expanded internationally, acquiring land in Australia, Spain, Morocco, and several South American countries. It became involved in real estate and housing construction as well as animal husbandry and farming.
As the executive officer in charge of the King Ranch’s complex and varied operations in the late 1970s, Armstrong helped to establish the ranch’s thoroughbred horse-breeding program in Kentucky and on the Big B Ranch in Florida, in addition to serving as the Florida ranch’s consultant. During this period he also served as a consultant for the King Ranch’s operations in Brazil and Australia. In 1979 he became the chairman of the Texas Animal Health Commission; he served in that capacity until 1983. Armstrong was recognized in 1979 by Progressive Farmer magazine as Man of the Year in Service to Texas Agriculture. In 1982 he became the chairman of the Committee on Brucellosis of the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA). Brucellosis is a potentially serious flulike disease that can be transmitted from cattle, sheep, or goats to human beings through dairy products made from the milk of infected animals. Cases of brucellosis in humans, however, are rare in the United States because of animal health programs and stringent regulation of milk and cheese production.
Armstrong also became a member of ANCA’s board of directors and chairman of its animal health committee in 1982. In 1983 he was named the sixth recipient of the National Golden Spur Award, an honor given to outstanding ranchers by a group of associations that include the American Paint Horse Association, the American Quarter Horse Association, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, and the Texas CattleWomen as well as the NCBA. Armstrong received the Headliner Award from the Livestock Publications Council in 1983, “for meritorious service to the livestock industry.” That same year he also received the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Health Award and was named to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raiser Association Hall of Fame. ANCA honored Armstrong as Cattle Businessman of the Year in 1985.
During the 1980s, however, the King Ranch began to suffer financial troubles. Its cattle operations lost money because of a depressed beef market and problems within its breeding program. ExxonMobil closed its oil and gas drilling operations on the ranch due to sluggish world oil prices. The ranch’s efforts to diversify by adding shrimp farming to its list of businesses were proving to be costly. To cover its losses, more than half the ranch’s employees were given early retirement or furloughed between 1984 and 1987. Resentment from long-time employees of the ranch, mostly Hispanic, grew accordingly. In addition to business-related problems, Armstrong’s wife died in 1986.
Armstrong replaced James H. Clement as president and chief executive of King Ranch, Inc., in June 1987. He knew that his position as chief executive was temporary but did his best to keep the ranch’s operations financially stable while recruiting business experts outside the King family to manage the ranch’s various enterprises.
During this period he was inducted into the International Stockmen’s Educational Foundation (ISEF) Hall of Fame. In 1988 the board members of the King Ranch named Darwin E. Smith, the former chairman and chief executive of the Kimberly-Clark Corp., to head the King Ranch. Smith, the first chief executive of King Ranch, Inc., who was not a member of the King family by birth or marriage, had been credited with turning Kimberly-Clark from an inefficient enterprise into the world’s leading consumer paper products company. Armstrong himself retired from King Ranch, Inc., but continued as a managing partner of the John B. Armstrong Ranch.
Armstrong continued to be recognized for his achievements after his retirement. In 1994 the State Fair of Texas presented him with its Heritage Hall of Honor Award, and in 2001 he was inducted into the Santa Gertrudis Breeders International Hall of Fame. He continued participating in his ranch operations, polo, and hunting until his death on 20 February 2003 at the age of eighty-three after a lengthy illness. He was buried at Chamberlain Cemetery in Kingsville, Texas. The King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management was founded later that year at Texas A&M University–Kingsville to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the King Ranch. The John Armstrong Lectureship Series on Systems Approaches to Ranch Management was endowed in Armstrong’s memory.
Some of Armstrong’s personal papers have been deposited in the South Texas Archives of the James C. Jernigan Library at Texas A&M University–Kingsville. There is no full-length biography of Armstrong as of the early 2000s; however, book-length histories of the King Ranch include Mona D. Sizer, The King Ranch Story, Truth and Myth: A History of the Oldest and Greatest Ranch in Texas (1999), and Don Graham, Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire (2003). A memorial tribute to Armstrong appeared in Polo News and Events (23 Mar. 2003). An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Mar. 2003).
Brian B. Carpenter