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Armstrong's closed nearly 30 years ago, but former workers still meet annually for employee picnic

Photo courtesy of Mike Sullivan

Armstrong’s department store, at Third Street and Third Avenue SE in downtown Cedar Rapids, was in business for just over 100 years when it went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1991. In the 30 years since, its employees have carried on its annual employee picnic.
Photo courtesy of Mike Sullivan Armstrong’s department store, at Third Street and Third Avenue SE in downtown Cedar Rapids, was in business for just over 100 years when it went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1991. In the 30 years since, its employees have carried on its annual employee picnic.
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When it was in business, Armstrong’s was more than just a department store to its employees — it was the heart of downtown Cedar Rapids, it was a second home and it was a place where lifelong friends were made.

That’s why, when the department store went bankrupt and closed its doors for good in 1991, its employees decided to keep one Armstrong’s tradition alive — the employee picnic.

“When the store was open, Robert Armstrong (the owner), would host the annual picnic for his employees himself,” said Mike Sullivan, an Armstrong’s employee of 23 years. “The city would set up a bunch of tables at one of the parks for us and Robert would pay for all the food and there’d be games. It was just a fun day for all of us to get together and socialize outside of the store.”

Now, nearly 30 years later, Sullivan, 79, — who has been in charge of the picnic for the past 10 years — and many of his co-workers continue to keep the picnic going, albeit in simpler form.

“These days, it’s just a bunch of us getting together to eat and catch up. We’re all getting up there in age and the group changes a little every year as we lose people,” Sullivan said. “Everyone brings food and we spend a few hours together talking and reminiscing.”

The oldest member of the group, he said, is going to be 103 years old this year, and “he still is going strong.”

“We all pitched in and got him a cake when he turned 100,” Sullivan said. “He still drives his own car and he still comes pretty much every year.”

The picnic takes place on the last Wednesday of August every year. This year, the group will meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Ellis Park Overlook Pavilion.

On average, Sullivan said, about 20 to 30 former employees will attend, but some years the group has been as small as six people, especially when the weather is bad.

“You never know who will show up until you get there,” he said. “Sometimes it’s 20 people and other times it’s 10. We have people who come every year and others who will show up every few years. But we just keep going.”

Though it’s been nearly 30 years since the store closed, former employee Ron King, 72, said the 24 years he spent designing window displays at Armstrong’s were some of the best.

“It’s tough to explain, but it really was just like a family,” King said of the Armstrong’s staff. “Robert Armstrong had a lot of faith in his people and he really cared about those that worked for him. He treated us with respect and made sure we were taken care of, and we treated each other and our customers with respect. It was just a really wonderful place.”

After Armstrong’s closed, Sullivan said a bunch of employees got together and decided they were not going to let the employee picnic go the way of the store. And from that, the former Armstrong’s employee picnic was born.

“I guess it is pretty unusual,” Sullivan said of the annual get-together. “But then again, working at Armstrong’s was not a typical job.”

“It really is something special for all of us,” King said of the time at Armstrong’s. “It was a time in our lives when we really enjoyed going to work because it was sort of like going home. For a lot of us, the people we worked with became our second family.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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