Harry McCabe in 2009William F. Armstrong

UPDATED, March 10: William F. Armstrong, founder and owner for the last 68 years of the Arlington ambulance company he built, died Friday, March 7, at age 89, his company announced. A news release said Armstrong died peacefully, surrounded by his family.

The leadership team at Armstrong told employees and community partners, "It is with deep sadness that we share the news of Bill Armstrong’s passing.

"Bill devoted his life to the advancement of EMS care, and to the professionals who serve Arlington and Greater Boston -- from the EMTs, paramedics, chair car drivers and family of staff at Armstrong Ambulance, to our partners at the police stations, fire houses, hospitals and the network of community healthcare professionals. Bill’s unwavering dedication and service to others throughout his 68 years here at Armstrong Ambulance was humbling.

"He led by example, and mentored all of us as we strove to achieve the high standards he set for our EMS profession."

Armstrong built his company from a single vehicle into a fleet of nearly 100, equipped with the most advanced equipment and technology, operating from its headquarters along Mystic Street, which was dedicated in 2006. It had long been situated along Brattle Street, until building a new headquarters.

Armstrong employs about 300

The company supports 16 communities in greater Boston, including providing frontline life-support services to Medford, Arlington, Bedford, Burlington, Watertown and Woburn. It employs about 300 EMS professionals.

Armstrong was known in Arlington as generous to many community organizations. His donation supported securing and installing the scoreboard at Arlington High School after Pierce Field was rebuilt.

According to a lengthy statement released by the company, one of Bill Armstrong’s favorite sayings was: "If you throw a pebble into a still pond it causes many ripples."

Armstrong's life was one that sent many ripples into the world. In numerous ways he touched the hearts of his family, of those who worked for him, of those hospitals, nursing homes and government agencies associated with the Armstrong Ambulance Service, of those hundreds of thousands of patients who rode in his vehicles, and of those many people whose lives he affected through his numerous acts of public and private charity.

Born in Cambridge, educated at AHS

Armstrong was born Sept. 7, 1924 in Cambridge and was educated at Arlington High School, where he played varsity football and baseball.

When he graduated World War II raged. He tried to enlist in the Marines to serve his country but was turned down due to a hernia. Undeterred, he promptly had an operation, and this time the Marines welcomed him.

When he was discharged from the Marines in 1946, he cast about for a profession. His mother, a registered nurse who cared for ill or injured neighbors, inspired in him a need to help others.

One day a neighbor asked Armstrong whether he would drive him to the Massachusetts General Hospital for daily treatments. As Bill waited in the hospital lobby while his neighbor received care, he became enthralled by the ambulances that rolled up in front of the hospital transporting the sick and the injured. He decided that this would be his career, a decision that led to the founding of one of the most trusted and successful ambulance companies in Massachusetts, still operating after 68 years.

Company founded in 1946

In 1946, he purchased his first Cadillac ambulance. Along with a partner and a loan from his mother who cashed in an insurance policy to help her son, he formed the Arlington Ambulance Service. During its first six months, the rudimentary business operated from the Armstrong family home.

Soon thereafter, his partner resigned, and Bill created the Armstrong Ambulance Service.

Armstrong used to sleep in his first ambulance by a pay phone booth and wait for calls from the police. He had given them the number to call when they needed an ambulance. He did well enough to repay a loan from a doctor of a $1,000 the first year and he was off and running. During those early years when Bill was called out at night to respond to those in need, he would wake a family member or neighbor to ride along as his assistant.

As the business and his reputation for his compassionate care and trustworthy service grew, he purchased additional vehicles and hired more staff. He was always guided by service to his patients and he spared no expense to improve his ability to care for them. Once when he spotted a slightly worn front tire on an ambulance, he immediately purchased two hundred new tires. This care extended to the smallest detail—extra socks on board ambulances to warm patients’ feet; two blankets on the stretcher for extra warmth and comfort; a towel available to place on a patient’s head if it rained while he or she was being transported.

The company account said Armstrong worked seven days a week, often around the clock. He hired the best people available and through additional training made them better.

He extended the same respect he had for his patients to his employees. He expected loyalty and he gave it back. Bill was famous for his Christmas parties, where through a variety of games he would generously reward his employees. Bill’s favorite place was in his chair in his office looking out a large window as he watched the efforts of the Armstrong team provide the highest quality service to patients.

For many years, no laws or regulations governed the ambulance business. Armstrong became a leader in the industry and was instrumental in establishing the Massachusetts Ambulance Association, which aimed to ensure that high standards were implemented and maintained throughout the state by all ambulance-service providers.

Called pioneer in advance life support

During the early 1980s under Armstrong’s leadership, his company prospered and became a pioneer in the field of advanced life support.

His company grow from a one-man operation to a fleet of nearly 100 with close to 300 employees serving more than 100,000 people throughout greater Boston and Eastern Massachusetts area. As his company grew, he would always ask employees and visitors to Armstrong, “What do you think is the one thing that you need to have to work for me?” The answer: “Compassion.”

For his professional efforts, Bill received countless accolades from all sectors, both locally and nationally, ranging from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the federal government, and local communities to nonprofits, schools and religious affiliates.

He gave back to his community in many ways. For years, Armstrong  donated all of the flags displayed on Mass. Ave. in Arlington for Flag Day; he provided funds for the Arlington Christmas Tree Lights so the tradition could continue; he supported municipal police and fire departments with such items as training and specialized medical equipment; he helped the local public and private schools, especially their athletic teams, due to his love of sports,  An Armstrong Family Scholarship Fund has, for years, been assisting Arlington High School graduates who intend to pursue a career in healthcare.
 
The additional impact Bill has had on the community is truly too great to detail. His private acts of charity were also numerous. Bill never wanted credit or notoriety. But his generosity extended to a school child in need of dental work, to a nursing home in Ireland in need of a television, and to wife of a patient in need of money to help with daily expenses. In each of these cases, and many more, Bill reached into his heart.

Eager fan of Boston teams

Amstrong was a serious sports fan of the local professional teams -- The New England Patriots, Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins and Boston Red Sox -- as well as college teams. At his second home in Jupiter, Florida he liked to fish. He owned racehorses and enjoyed going to Foxwoods Casino to play the slots. He also loved to travel, particularly to Ireland.

In all of his acts of kindness and giving, in all his efforts to provide the highest quality of care for his patients and the highest level of customer service to his institutional clients, and in all his generosity and mentoring to his employees, Bill Armstrong cast many pebbles and caused many ripples. Those ripples will go on as long as his example is remembered by those who knew and loved him.

Armstrong had a deep love for his family and is survived by his children and their spouses: Faye Armstrong, Gale and Stephen Brady, Holly Wallace, and Jill Gallagher; and by his grandchildren: Jennifer and Scott Carroll, Meredith Brady, Candy Wallace, Katie Wallace, Lindsey Wallace, Haley Gallagher, Kelsey Gallagher and Paul Gallagher.

Wake, funeral

The wake is set for Wednesday, March 12, from 3 to  9 p.m., at the Keefe Funeral Home, 5 Chestnut St., Arlington.

The funeral is scheduled for Thursday, March 13, at 10 a.m., at the First Baptist Church, 819 Mass. Ave.

The family has requested that the interment remains private.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Armstrong Family Scholarship Fund at Arlington High School. This scholarship is awarded to an Arlington High School graduate who wishes to pursue a career in health care.


This story was published at 4 p.m. Friday, March 7, 2014, and updated numerous times thereafter.

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