116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The legacy of Esther and Robert Armstrong, once the owners of the storied Armstrong’s Department Store in downtown Cedar Rapids, will live on through the organizations that their trust has bestowed with millions as the remaining funds are disbursed and the charity dissolves this month.
In its final round of grants, the Esther and Robert Armstrong Charitable Trust, established in 2002, will give $600,000 each to seven organizations — gifts totaling $4.2 million.
The beneficiaries are:
- Coe College
- Cornell College
- The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
- St. Paul’s United Methodist Church Foundation
- The YMCA of the Cedar Rapids Metropolitan Area
- United Way of East Central Iowa
- Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church (Atlanta)
The gifts to the seven organizations total more than the trust had given away over its previous 19 years of existence. Cumulatively since 2002, the charitable trust gave $3 million to religious, charitable, scientific, literary and educational institutions.
Large gifts in recent years include $100,000 to Coe College for its Center for Health and Society and $200,000 to the Marion YMCA’s new building. Other gifts funded an endowed chair in Coe College’s English Department and allowed free admission in perpetuity to the Grant Wood Studio in downtown Cedar Rapids.
“I know the Armstrongs would be proud to know that their generosity will live on for generations and go directly to enhancing our community,” Ron Olson, chair of the trust, said in a statement. “What they generously gave while they were alive continues today in spirit and deeds.”
The seven organizations were favored by the Armstrongs as beneficiaries. Robert Armstrong died in 1990; Esther in 2002.
Olson said that trustees decided the funds would be put to better use in the hands of nonprofits facing an ever-changing environment. Trustees felt that the trust ran the risk of straying from the Armstrongs’ wishes with future trustees becoming more removed from understanding their desires.
“Because it’s distributed and only a certain amount will be spent every year, it will extend the philanthropy of the Armstrongs for many, many years,” Olson said. “The trust isn’t dying. Their philanthropy will live on for many years.”
Though there are no requirements as to how recipients spend the gifts, the trust prefers that the gifts be spent on programming, rather than ordinary or operational expenses. The trust has also asked that each recipient spend the funds at the same rate they would other similar gifts.
Quasi-endowed funds for the YMCA of the Cedar Rapids Metropolitan Area and the United Way of East Central Iowa will be established with the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, Olson said. The other five recipients will manage the gifts through their own foundations.
Funds for the YMCA and United Way will be spent at 4.5 percent per year, meaning $600,000 will last them well over 20 years.
“From an endowment standpoint of gifts left in perpetuity, that’s right up there with some of the biggest ones,” said Bob Carlson, president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of the Cedar Rapids Metropolitan Area. “That’s why it’s so appreciated. It’s just a lasting legacy for the Armstongs and how much they’ve been involved not only with the YMCA but other organizations in the community.”
Carlson said the Armstrong Charitable Trust has been a “key player” in the YMCA’s history. While the Y decides how best to use the gift, it will be left in the foundation, allowing the nonprofit to use earned interest to fund other projects in the mean time.
“The Armstrong family has been a pillar of our community for decades, and we appreciate their support of United Way of East Central Iowa’s mission over the years,” said Kristin Roberts, president and CEO of United Way of East Central Iowa. “A gift of this size is incredibly important to not only United Way, but to the entire community. It allows us to invest these funds to create sustainable change in Eastern Iowa both now and for years to come.”
The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art will add the contribution to its endowment and create the Robert and Esther Armstrong Endowed Fund, according to Executive Director Sean Ulmer. Proceeds will be used to support exhibitions and educational programs.
“The CRMA is thrilled with the generous gift from the Armstrong Charitable Trust,” he said.
Coe College plans to use its gift for strategic priorities that include its new David & Janie McInally Center for Health and Society.
“The investments made in Coe College by Robert and Esther Armstrong, both during their lives and through the trust, have positively impacted generations of Coe students, faculty and staff,” said David Hayes, president of Coe College. “We are deeply grateful to the trustees for this remarkable opportunity to extend the Armstrong legacy.”
Distribution of the funds will be completed over the next few weeks.
Armstrong’s operated for a century in Cedar Rapids, its final location being at Third Street and Third Avenue SE in downtown. Shortly after its centennial. the store announced it would file for bankruptcy and closed in 1991.
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