Lea Armstrong is 71 years old and a bit eccentric. She lives in a downtown Tacoma building that was on a 1909 postcard she liked so much she bought it.
The building, not the postcard.
“It was the first YMCA built in Tacoma,” she said. “I bought it to make offices for my business, then converted it to my residence. I live in the top floor.”
The business was Armstrong In-Home Personal Care & Respite Services, also known as Armstrong Uniserve Inc. and Armstrong UniCare LLC, which Armstrong started in 1994 with three employees. When she sold it 11 years later, it had grown into a major home health care company with just under 3,000 employees.
It would be nice to say she began giving her money away then, but untrue.
That, she started years earlier.
Born in Daegu, South Korea, Armstrong came to the United States when she was 22, wound up in Tacoma five years later and loved the place.
She arrived with a Korean college education but wanted more. So she went to Pacific Lutheran University, changed her major five times and got a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
“They told me I had enough credits to get a degree in five subjects,” she said, laughing.
“I majored in English literature, journalism, childhood education and mathematics, too.”
Then she went to the University of Puget Sound and got a master’s of business administration degree.
She worked for Boeing, cared for her parents once they’d immigrated and, briefly, was married. If she had spare time, it bored her.
“When I got bored, I’d volunteer,” Armstrong said. “I worked at food banks and shelters, with school kids and the elderly.”
Before she knew it, she was on the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, appointed to the Green River Community College Board of Trustees, a part of more groups than she can recall. On her 50th birthday in 1992, Pierce County proclaimed Jan. 8 Lea Armstrong Day.
“I like people, and people like me,” Armstrong said. “If someone needs help and I don’t do something, that bothers me. I have a weakness: people.”
Armstrong can’t remember exactly when she started helping people get into or through college. It began with one student or another who was facing financial desperation.
“It was something I did, personally,” she said.
In 2003, she decided to add a formal wing to her assistance plan, and founded the Lea Armstrong Social and Community Organization. She serves on the board of trustees along with nine other members.
Mostly what they do is give away her money.
“When I worked with the Green River Community College, I saw a great scholarship system — unless you were a single mom or dad with young ones at home,” Armstrong said. “If they were trying to go to school, they had jobs. If they had jobs and kids, there wasn’t much time for books.
“Their grades were too low for scholarships going to students with a 3.5 or better grade point average.”
Seeing single parents fall through the cracks, Armstrong began awarding scholarships to those with 2.5 GPAs. The LASCO fund awarded 10 of those scholarships Tuesday night. LASCO is now part of the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, but Armstrong has stayed on the advisory board.
The total number of scholarships has now reached 132, worth a total of $166,000. None has been larger than $1,500.
“It’s not huge money, but they can spend it any way they want that helps them stay in school,” Armstrong said. “If they have two or three children and are taking evening classes, they can take the kids to McDonald’s once in awhile.
“It’s encouragement money, to tell them someone cares.”
Armstrong travels now, spending as much as six months a year in Hawaii, wandering across the globe on one adventure or another. “I tell people, ‘If I don’t call back, I’m in a foreign country,’” she said.
She speaks with a slight Japanese accent, the result, she says, of learning English in Korea from teachers taught in Japan. She is so proud of Tacoma, she claimed it even while residing in Kent.
“I’d tell people, ‘I live in Tacoma, I sleep in Kent,’” Armstrong said.
And that downtown YMCA building at 714 Market St.? She renovated the inside, left the outside cleaner but unchanged.
“If people who own buildings change them every 20 years, where is our history?” she asked. “It’s a beautiful building.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638