By Randy Fiedler
Today, Dr. Andrew Joseph Armstrong is best remembered as the former chair of English at Baylor University whose love of the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning led to the creation of the world-famous Armstrong Browning Library on the Baylor campus. But his love of travel and of seeking out new experiences helped thousands in the Baylor family see the world, and laid the foundations for today’s more formalized programs of study abroad.
Armstrong was drawn to travel from a young age. When he was six years old, he clipped a newspaper article about Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat and resolved then and there that he would see its resting place –– which he eventually did. That clipping was the beginning of a travel scrapbook that Armstrong would add to for years.
Not until 1909, at the age of 36, was Armstrong able to make the first of what would be some 30-odd trips he took to Europe. For each trip he would carefully plan his itinerary, making notes on what he planned to see. In his travels, Armstrong was able to observe royalty up close, meet luminaries such as Gandhi, Mussolini and the Pope, and witness historic events such as the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
It wasn’t long before Armstrong desired to share his discoveries abroad with members of the Baylor family and the general public –– and make a little money in the process. In 1912 he used his business acumen to begin Armstrong Educational Tours, a for-profit company with offices in Waco and Paris that would eventually be referred to as “the oldest and largest travel bureau in the South.” Within 20 years of its creation, the company had guided about four thousand tourists.
Armstrong’s company would mail out tens of thousands of booklets a year across the United States, advertising upcoming tours with names such as “The Rainbow Trail,” “The Southern Special” and “The Land of the Midnight Sun.” By the early 1930s, the company offered about 20 different trips a year, which included a “Round the World” tour as well as tours of destinations that could include Europe, China, Russia, the Middle East, North Africa, Mexico or South America.
These trips were not like the streamlined tours and cruises of today that typically last a week or two. Armstrong’s shortest tours might run for six weeks, while his longest tours took an entire summer to complete.
Most tours were designed for adults, with Baylor alumni, faculty and staff often among the participants. But students often joined them, and Armstrong made it a priority to offer special tours that allowed college students to pay a reduced rate for the chance to spend six weeks traveling around Europe.
Typically, Armstrong himself would lead one tour each year. Sometimes he was joined by his wife Mary, but she also led separate tours of her own. To lead the remaining trips, Armstrong relied heavily on hiring university professors –– from Baylor and elsewhere –– who had knowledge of the countries on the itinerary. A frequent guide was Baylor’s dean of women, Irene Marschall, while other leaders included Baylor personalities such as German professor J.E. Hawkins, Spanish professor Annie Long and Hallie Maude Neff, daughter of Baylor president Pat Neff.
Even Baylor President Samuel Palmer Brooks led an Armstrong tour, visiting 12 European countries in 90 days during the summer of 1930. Brooks would refer to Armstrong as “the man who makes his living directing a travel bureau so that he can afford to be a college professor.” And indeed, Armstrong would use his travels to gather information to share with his students or locate artifacts to purchase for Baylor’s growing Browning Collection.
One special trip that Armstrong led periodically was the Browning Pilgrimage, first offered in 1926. During these treks around Europe, Armstrong would introduce travelers to diverse places connected with Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, such as Casa Guidi, their home in Italy, and London’s Westminster Abbey, the site of Robert Browning’s grave in the Poet’s Corner.
While most modern study abroad programs have added an academic credit component in addition to their sightseeing elements, the spirit of adventure and exploration that permeate today’s trips around the world remains a legacy of the pioneering journeys that Dr. A.J. Armstrong shared with Baylor many years ago.
Photos courtesy of The Texas Collection at Baylor University