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Ken Armstrong

BA 1985, Political Science

Staff Writer, The Marshall Project, New York, NY

Ken Armstrong, a former investigative reporter at The Seattle Times and current staff writer on The Marshall Project, likes to joke about the diversity in his life: the number of places where he grew up (five); the number of different, and sometimes tiny, newspapers he’s worked for (eight); and the number of other things he pursued (law school, the Peace Corps) before becoming a journalist. He’s less forthcoming about the number of awards he’s won (double digits), including a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, a shared Pulitzer for breaking news, an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his book Scoreboard, Baby, and a fellowship from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

But Armstrong likes to debunk any myths you might harbor about the glamour of his work. “Forget shadowy sources in parking garages,” he suggests. “Investigative reporting requires a high tolerance for long stretches of boredom. At the Chicago Tribune, I spent eight months on a death-penalty series, plowing through one case file after another, filling in hand-drawn spreadsheets. But afterward, the governor held a press conference to say he was suspending executions. He ticked off our findings, one after another, saying our work had crushed his faith in the system. Later he cited our findings while emptying Death Row.”

That’s just the sort of payoff that Armstrong is looking for. “When your work makes a difference, you don’t mind the drudgery,” he notes.

Purdue Influences
As a teaching assistant for Al Chiscon’s undergraduate biology course, I had to lead a section on sexual reproduction. There’s public speaking—and there’s public speaking about genitalia. I learned to stand in front of people and say uncomfortable things.

As the editor of The Exponent, I kept missing deadline. The publisher, Pat Kuhnle, took me to the printing press at midnight and introduced me to Ernie. Ernie described all the people I was making miserable, from the press operators to the truck drivers to the operators’ and drivers’ families. I learned that my screw-ups can hurt people I never even see.

Sometimes you meet special people, and only later do you appreciate how special. I took two classes from Myron Hale, who chaired the political science department. I remember how he carried himself—a big man, with grace. He died in 2006, at age 84. If you read his obituary, you’re taken from the American West to Iwo Jima to the March on Washington, his life a testament to courage and principle. Purdue was lucky to have him, and I was lucky to learn from him.

Purdue Memories
Fellow alumni: If asked your favorite memory of college, would you answer honestly? Me neither. My favorite memory is the fight song, assuming we had one, and I’m pretty sure we did.

My favorite tradition was the Nude Olympics, may they rest in peace. I got to take part—one year, one lap—before [then president of Purdue] Dr. Steven Beering banned them, saying: “When you’ve got 300 people running around stark naked at minus 50 degrees, you run the major risk of frostbite and losing tips of noses, fingers, genitalia, breasts, toes, and so on.” I still wonder about that “so on.” I’m pretty sure mine survived, tip intact, but I’m no doctor.

Purdue Now
One of my favorite movie scenes ever is that four-minute montage in Up, with Carl and Ellie growing up and growing old, their love coloring all—dreams, joy, and heartbreak. After seeing the movie, I discovered the scene was written by Bob Peterson, a Purdue alum who I worked with at The Exponent.

Other people I worked with at The Exponent include: Ginger Thompson, who became an extraordinary journalist, tackling such daunting subjects as the CIA’s role in a death squad in Honduras (I suspect her work as an investigative reporter has entailed less boredom than mine); Brandt Hershman, the Indiana State Senate’s majority floor leader; Betsy Liley, a national fundraiser for the Humane Society of the United States; and Jay Fehnel, who went on to do big things in business. Asked back to campus, he told a crowd at Krannert: “Be nice to your friends in Liberal Arts, because you might be working for them some day.”

Other people I knew at The Exponent have done wonderful work in education and social services. To me, Purdue is all about the ripples.

Greatest Achievement
Making it across the Alaska-Canadian Highway, frost heaves and all, in a 1980 Pontiac Grand LeMans without headlights or shocks. That, or writing a book in the bathroom.

Person I Admire
I may be stepping into a punch line here, but my wife loves worms. When we take walks, she’ll see a worm on the pavement—petered out, no juice left in its slimy little tank—and she’ll pick it up and put it in the grass. I admire that. (Even though it makes our walks longer. Or maybe because.)

Idea of Perfect Happiness
Knowing there’s no such thing—and being perfectly fine with that.

What I’m Reading
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman, which sounds all big and important, but is in fact a lovely and unusual mystery. Rachman is a former reporter who has become an exceptional novelist. Damn him.

Profession I’d Like to Try
Cowboy. Because some dreams should never die.