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Thomas More President Celebrates Covington Connection, Announces Bold Moves for College

"A region is only as strong as its center so Covington needs to be strong. Places like Covington survive because of two things: business and people."

David Armstrong, the president of Thomas More College, spoke to the Covington Business Council at its monthly luncheon at the Madison Event Center on Thursday where he announced some ambitious new initiatives at the school and also celebrated the college's historic link to Northern Kentucky's largest city.

Armstrong said he was asked by CBC Executive Director Pat Frew if it were possible to make some new in the form of an important announcement. The president quintupled that request and spelled out plans for five new pieces of the Thomas More experience.

The first was the announcement that the Crestview Hills campus, operated by the Diocese of Covington, will add a marine biology track, the first of its kind in Kentucky. The program will be bolstered by Thomas More's biology field station on the Ohio River and a relationship with the Newport Aquarium. 

Additionally, Thomas More will require all graduates to have participated in an experiential learning environment, will expand its online course offerings targeted at adult learners, and consolidate student fees to an amount around $1,300 so that students will not be expected to buy their books separately. 

"Students will never have to buy a book at Thomas More College," Armstrong said. "We as an institution will rent those books. Never will a student be in a class and not have a book and that happens more than you think."

Armstrong also announced more financial aid for graduates of the Covington-based Life Learning Center, which is expanding its reach by moving from Austinburg to a renovated Stewart Iron Works Building later this year. That program takes in selected students whose lives have been filled with struggles and teaches them the necessary life skills and gives important resources in order for them to change.

The college president spoke of a recent Roast of Bill Butler, the chairman of Covington-based Corporex and benefactor of the Life Learning Center which benefited financially from the roast to the tune of nearly $300,000, where he met a recent graduate of the center. "She told me she was a graduate of the Life Learning Center. Her life was in danger and she had to leave with three kids in a broken down car to get away from a horrible situation in another part of the country," Armstrong said. "I'm thinking, OK, that's what the Life Learning Center is about and that's what we do at Thomas More College."

Armstrong also referenced Thomas More's birth as the all-female Villa Madonna College in Covington. He shared tidbits from the city's and the school's past and said that his favorite historical notation was the short-lived Covington Blue Sox, a professional baseball team that competed in the "outlaw" Federal League before moving to Kansas City two months into its only season.

He talked about Federal Park, the modest stadium constructed in Covington to house the Blue Sox. "I think some of us could still play (in that stadium)," he said. "It was only 194 feet down the right field line, 218 down the left field line, and 267 at center field. That would make me happy to be a professional athlete at fifty."

Because Thomas More College answers to the Diocese of Covington, whose home base is Downtown, the link between the school and the City of Covington is natural, even though it moved to a bunch of farmland in Crestview Hills in the late 1960s. Armstrong continued to explain this relationship through the use of sports references.

"If you know me, you know I'm a big Cleveland Browns fan," said the northern Ohio native. "That's tough to say in Bengals country but I have no ill will towards Bengals country because Paul Brown (longtime coach of the Browns) founded the Bengals. I do hate the Steelers though."

His wife, however, is a Steelers fan, and that's good news for his continued employment. "The bishop likes the Steelers," he said. "I come from a mixed marriage. My wife is a Steelers fan. The one good part to it, (she) and the bishop are best friends."

As Thomas More prepares for future growth under its new president's leadership (Armstrong took over last July from Sister Margaret Stallmeyer who now oversees the urban metro campus of Gateway Community & Technical College in Downtown Covington), a former president's presence on campus is also noteworthy.

A former United States President's presence, that is.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson visited the new campus for its opening and asked for two things in order to do so, at a time in which his war policy was the source of student protests across the nation. "He asked for two things in order to come," Armstrong said of LBJ. "No protests by students and that he could get in and out quuickly."

"The good students of Villa Madonna, the very good, conservative crowd, did not protest and he ended up overstaying his welcome. It's a great part of our history."
Future history is being written now at the college which recently added a women's lacrosse program and a marching band on the campus of 1,600 students.
It also opened a new chapel in late 2012. "The most important this is, we opened a new chapel on our campus," Armstrong said. "I couldn't thank Sister Margaret and Bishop (Roger) Foys enough for where they put that on campus. It's right in the middle of campus. When you come to our campus you see that as soon as you pull in. It's just beautiful."
But as the college now grows in its home city of the past 45 years, Crestview Hills, does Thomas More still have value in Covington?
"Absolutely," Armstrong said.
He noted programs in which the Thomas More community helps Covingtonians with their tax returns, partnerships with Covington schools and students, and bringing students from the school district to its biology research field station where, "We have undergraduate students doing graduate level research all the time and bringing in grade school, middle school, and high school students, and bringing in their teachers for for training."
Armstrong said that program recently received $100,000 from Duke Energy for expansion.
Meanwhile, the president and his administration are working on a strategic plan for growth that he hopes to present for approval from the school's board in September. The plan includes four pillars, starting with the fact that Thomas More is a mission-centric institution. "That has to be front and center," he said.
Resources must also be increased, including more fundraising and outreach. Armstrong said he stuck a pin on a map where Crestview Hills lies and circled an area that represents a region with a two-hour's drive from campus. "We have to own that and expand it an hour every year after," he said.
The plan will also center around transformation. "So many alums tell me how Thomas More College/Villa Madonna have transformed their lives and now those people have transformer their world," Armstrong said.
"The education of mind, body, and spirit, a liberal arts education, to think well, to read well, to communicate well. That's what it's about and that's what Thomas More College has been doing for years and we have to enhance that," he said.
"We can't wait till the strategic plan is done. We have to get to work."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: TMC President David Armstrong speaks at CBC luncheon/via Thomas More College