Empowering Women’s Legacy: IWCC Celebrates Women’s History Month and IWCC Outstanding Alum Elaine Armstrong

On her first day on the job at the Clarinda Herald-Journal many years ago, Elaine Armstrong opened a desk drawer to find a little paper that said, “Service is the rent you pay for the space you occupy.” It’s a quote with several similar versions and unclear attribution, but the sentiment spoke to Armstrong.

“I started trying to live that way at that job,” she said. “And I think it has been a good model for me.” Armstrong, who was named 2023 Iowa Western Community College Outstanding Alum, has a long history of service to Clarinda, most recently as an elected official. In 1996, she was elected as a Page County Supervisor, becoming the first woman to fill that position. She served for 20 years, retiring in 2016. Prior to holding public office, Armstrong had worked for the Herald-Journal a total of 27 years as a photographer and reporter interrupted only by a two-year stint as an administrative assistant for the community’s Chamber of Commerce.

Armstrong, who grew up on a farm just outside of town, originally envisioned a teaching career. After graduating from Clarinda High School, Armstrong (Freudenburg until she married between her first and second years of college) began taking general studies classes at Iowa Western’s Clarinda facility.

“When I graduated in 1965, that fall nearly a third of my class stayed in Clarinda and attended Iowa Western; it was just the thing to do,” she said. “So, we had 36 out of 115 choose to stay here and go to Iowa Western.”

In her second year at Iowa Western, Armstrong shifted course. She earned a two-year degree in secretarial studies with the goal of gaining skills that would appeal to employers in town, and hit the pavement right away after her studies were completed. “I was hired for a typing job at the newspaper; I was pretty good at English and writing,” she said. “Next thing I knew, they said, ‘Would you like to try your hand at reporting and news writing?’ And I did. I also picked up photography, so I was actually a reporter/photographer for most of my time at the newspaper.” Looking back, Armstrong said her 27 years in the field of journalism and other experience helped her meet numerous people and learn many new things. “It was a good background. I picked up management skills, business skills, people skills. Each thing kind of builds on the next… At the Chamber of Commerce, that helped me learn a lot about the business community,” she said. “It just kind of all fit together, and it was a good way to have a practical education here at home. And over the years, I took some adult ed courses at the college.” Armstrong went to night school in Clarinda to earn a bachelor’s degree in business from Buena Vista University, graduating in 1992 at the age of 45. Her daughter Melinda earned a bachelor’s degree the same year.

“I could work all day, and then go to class in the evening,” she said. “It was a relatively inexpensive, not-too-difficult way to finish my bachelor’s degree.”

In 1996, Armstrong was covering the government beat for the newspaper and had reported on the Page County Board of Supervisors for several years. More than one person suggested she run for an open position created after one of the members of the Board of Supervisors resigned in the midst of his term. Armstrong felt her education and work experience—along with her community-centered, outgoing personality and spirit of service—made her solidly qualified.

“I had a management degree. I’d taken courses, like Analysis of Financial Statements, that really were helpful. And I knew a lot of people; I had name recognition in the county, in the newspaper and through my volunteer activities. I think that helped greatly to get me elected,” she said. “People knew that if they called me, I would call back and I would try to help them.” She won the election, as a write-in candidate, by nine votes, and even served her turn as president a couple of times before retiring in 2016.

“I knew how important it is to look a person in the eye, shake their hands, be interested in a person,” she said. “I think that helped me a lot during the years as a Supervisor, because I really tried to meet people, help them if I could in any way. And I think just having a servant’s heart is so important. It’s not always what you want first, but what’s going to be good for the people you’re serving.” Although it was hard to leave her long career with the newspaper (in the interest of avoiding potential conflict of interest as an elected official), Armstrong found public service to be a rewarding experience.

“I met so many interesting people and political candidates. We would go to the legislature in Des Moines at least once a year; I would go to meetings in Des Moines and serve on state committees. I even got to go to Washington, D.C., one year with one of my committee assignments, which was West Central Community Action, and we did some lobbying,” she said. “I got to do some really neat things. I was invited to go to Japan to Clarinda’s sister city. I was in the official delegation that went and that started my international travel. In later years, I got to go on three or four more international trips.”

As much as Armstrong enjoyed traveling, it was always good to come home to Clarinda. It was a choice, she said, to make her life, career and now retirement in her hometown.

“It was just the most practical thing to do; my family is here and my friends. And I always was able to get work here,” she said. “I just enjoy being here.”

Armstrong not only served the community professionally, she’s served community organizations including Kiwanis Club, where she was Lieutenant Governor for six Southwest Iowa clubs for five years; the Waubonsie Mental Health Center board of directors; the Clarinda Foundation, as its first president; the Southwest Iowa Foundation; the chamber of commerce’s Ambassadors; Corner Counties Early Childhood; and other boards, committees and organizations over the years.

“I’m a strong Christian, it’s always my Christian values. I felt it was something I was called to do,” she explained.

Armstrong became interested in starting a local public child care facility after her daughter was born in 1969. Now Armstrong is a grandmother (to twin granddaughters Kenzie and Kylie), and in the early 2000s, she realized her long-held goal when she helped establish Grandma’s House Daycare and Preschool. It now provides services to more than 100 children. Armstrong has several family ties to Iowa Western: Her daughter earned associate degrees from the institution and her sister Thelma is also a graduate. Armstrong said she’s especially proud to be named Outstanding Alum in the same year that Clarinda Center celebrates 100 years. “I was totally shocked and honored,” she said. “This was a real surprise.”

Visit a medical facility across Southwest Iowa and you’ll likely see the ripples of care and professionalism generated from IWCC Clarinda Center’s nursing program. The Clarinda Center paves the way for a variety of roles from RNs and LPNs to certified nursing assistants and administrators.

“We have alumni in nursing homes. We have alumni in local clinics and hospitals. Some go on to Omaha, Maryville, or St. Joseph—it just depends,” explained Clarinda Center Director Kristin Smith. “You’d be hard pressed to not find Iowa Western nursing alumni in our medical facilities around here.” The Clarinda Center’s Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) program started in 1955 and its Registered Nursing program started in 2008. To date, the program has approximately 1,040 nursing alumni.

In May, the facility hosted an all-nursing reunion as part of the Clarinda Center’s 100-year Anniversary celebration. Clarinda nursing alum, Helene Neville, was the featured guest speaker. “It was a really nice event,” recalled Smith. “They had a lot of fun looking through old pictures and talking about what it was like then compared to what it’s like now.”

One thing that has stayed consistent throughout the program’s history is the quality of professionals it sends into the workforce. Angela Sherlock, a graduate and current nursing instructor at the Clarinda Center, says the program’s students are highly sought after. “They’re professional, they’re proactive, and by and large, they [medical providers] just love having us in their facilities. They’ll tell us they’re really impressed with the quality of students that they have when they’re doing clinicals,” said Sherlock.

Roberta Kokenge worked at the Clarinda Center from 1970 to 2000. She agrees that the program’s students are an important investment for the community. “We taught a lot of wonderful people,” recalled Kokenge. At the time of this interview, she had just returned home from Clarinda Hospital after having knee surgery. Some of the nurses who cared for her were former students and graduates of the Clarinda Center.

“There are many of them that are still out there working, and they’re doing a very good job,” she said. One of Kokenge’s past students no longer works in Southwest Iowa, but to this day Helene Neville still uses many of the lessons Kokenge taught her – the power of a care plan. “It means to look at the whole picture, but then break it down in little bite sizes. How you’re going to implement that and what strategies are you going to use to get there,” explained Neville, who graduated from the Clarinda Center in 1984.

“Like a short-term goal would be, ‘Hey, this week you’ll go from the couch to the bed, back to the couch.’ Kokenge drilled it into our heads, and I’ve used the basic structure of a care plan throughout my career and definitely through my illness.”

The traveling nurse and four-time author hopes to put three more years into her career but is currently taking some time off while undergoing chemo to treat stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Neville used the same goalsetting methodology when she became the first woman to run across the country in 2010 for 2.5 thousand miles after her first diagnosis. She made several stops along the way to greet fellow nurses and patients in hospitals and long-term care facilities. They’re the reason she became a nurse in the first place.

“All they want is just a smile or a squeeze their hand. That goes a long way. And that kind of kicked me off for becoming a nurse. I jump started my desire because I wanted to go and make sure people knew that they mattered,” said Neville.

Neville credits a big part of her success to the guidance and coaching of IWCC Clarinda Center and instructors like Roberta Kokenge. “She was amazing,” recalled Neville. “She was going to make sure we were the best out there.” That passion for excellence in nursing still exists at the center today. “Our instructors know each student on a personal level,” said Smith. “The ratio of instructor to student is small and there’s lots of one-on-one time.” It’s the reason Angela Sherlock, who graduated in 2014, came back to teach. “I just very distinctly remember how helpful they were. How kind and genuine they were. They seemed to want to help us get there, get through it, and offer us advice along the way,” recalled Sherlock. “And I wanted to be able to give that back to nursing.”