CARTHAGE, Mo. — In the room where he shaped lives and berated officials for 17 years, former players, friends and family remembered long-time Carthage High School basketball coach Dan Armstrong, who died of a heart attack on March 4, 2021.
The event, called “Open Gym: Dan Armstrong Legacy Tribute,” went almost two hours past its expected run time of 2-4 p.m. on Saturday at the old Carthage High School gymnasium, but only a few dozen of the more than 250 people who attended left before the last speakers, his daughters Alice Habel, Aggie Petrando and Lucy Armstrong. finished their remarks.
“Secretly we know he loves the fact that we’ve gone an hour and 20 minutes over schedule,” Alice Habel said with a laugh. “He’d probably love us to lock it down and keep everyone here for another 24 hours if possible, but we appreciate your patience.”
Eighteen speakers talked about the coach who prowled the sidelines of the gymnasium from 1983 to 2000 as the Carthage coach.
He coached basketball at Sedalia Smith-Cotton for five years before he coached in Carthage, and some of his players from Sedalia made the trip to Carthage to memorialize their former coach.
Between speakers, a video from a roast, held when Armstrong retired in 2000, played, showing a number of speakers laughing and sharing stories about Dan Armstrong in front of him at the end of his coaching career.
“He had an impact on a lot of boys,” said Tracy Thomas, who played for Armstrong for three years in Sedalia. “He directed them spiritually and in family matters. It wasn’t just basketball, it was a way of live. He was bigger than life. The stories he could tell, he was a story teller. I know there are a lot of players here who went on to coach and teach because of him.
“He makes an impact on a community. He still gets brought up at my class reunions, and that was 40 years ago. He and his wife, too. Sally is just awesome.”
LEAVING A LEGACY
Armstrong died of a heart attack on March 4 at the family’s remote river house in Doniphan, Missouri. He was four months shy of his 70th birthday.
Armstrong grew up in Kansas City and graduated from Northeast High School in 1969. He played basketball at Morningside and UMKC before moving to Belgium in 1971 to play professional basketball.
After marrying Sally Shoemaker of Sedalia in 1975, they returned to Belgium for one year before returning to the U.S. and finishing his undergraduate degree at William Jewell. He also was an assistant coach there under John Hickman.
Armstrong and partner Scott Hettinger built and operated Overtime Gym for about 10 years. He coached one final year as an assistant for Missouri Southern coach Robert Corn.
Tom Wells, who graduated from Carthage in 1986, said it was crucial for him to be here to remember his coach and the impact he had on his life.
“The whole idea of leaving a legacy is to leave something that lasts beyond the lifespan of you as an individual,” Wells said. “Coach Armstrong created a legacy we celebrate today by doing innumerable small tasks that went with little fanfare and recognition. He opened the gym well before sunrise. Lord knows how many miles he pushed this broom sweeping this gym over and over and over again. He bought breakfast for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a meal until lunch time and he kept the gym open long after school was closed, and I’m sure that was also not officially sanctioned.
“He made sure that kids that couldn’t afford the basketball shoes the team had picked out, that they got a pair, or if they didn’t have appropriate dress attire, a coat and tie, he made sure somehow that they got them, and he did it in a way that protected their dignity. More importantly, he treated everyone with love and respect. You heard it in the sermon today ... we respect everyone, we fear no one.”
Shawn Deffenbaugh, a 2002 graduate of CHS, said he literally grew up in the gymnasium where he spoke on Saturday.
“Some of my first memories in life were in these stands watching the Tigers play, and nothing was better,” Deffenbaugh said. “If the other banners were still up here, I could look down and still name off pretty much all the names, because those guys were heroes. They were like pros. and on all the banners, there are plenty of names and they’re all different from banner to banner, but there was always the same name at the bottom, which was the head coach, Dan Armstrong.
“So when my parents told be they talked to coach and he said I could go to basketball camp, even though I was a couple of years younger than the minimum age, my whole brain couldn’t comprehend it. That crazy guy with the mustache is going to coach me? Let’s go!”
A FOUNDATION FOR KIDS
Toward the end of the event, Armstrong’s widow, Sally Armstrong, talked about the other legacy the family and former players decided that Dan Armstrong would like to leave for the community.
The family announced that the Dan Armstrong Legacy Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, has been established to provide financial assistance to local youth to improve their athletic skills, enhance basic fundamentals and to support character development.
It will also be used for grants for camp or clinic fees, instruction fees, equipment and uniforms. The foundation will be overseen by the Carthage Community Foundation.
Sally Armstrong said the foundation’s work will begin next week with the first Armstrong Legacy Junior Tigers Basketball Clinic, a one-day event that is free to all Carthage students, kindergarten through sixth grade.
Sally Armstrong said the foundation is partnering with current Tigers basketball coach Nathan Morris to help fund the camps and make sure they are free to Carthage students.
“Nathan was very kind to offer to name future camps for Dan, and we will be partnering with him next year giving basketballs to all participants,” Sally Armstrong said. “And beginning this year, providing a former player motivational speaker at each session to explain to the kids who never knew Dan what the legacy is about. I thank Nathan for his consideration.”