If you’re just a regular Joe or Jane, you’ve probably at some point—say, while lying back in an office chair, or doing the dishes, perhaps mowing the grass—entertained a number of Walter Mitty-like fantasies. You know … stuff like, “What’s it like to be that guy or girl?” For men, that guy could be anything. What’s it like to be the smartest kid in school? The star center on a school basketball team? The ace pitcher on the baseball team? A great running back in football? Better yet, how about doing all that in college? Wow … BMOC, plenty of attention from the girls, the coolest among the guys. Might as well toss in a professional baseball contract … what sports-loving boy doesn’t dream of that?
If you’ve never been considered “chick bait,” daydreams might find you 6 foot 4 with a muscular build, and a face that others besides a mother could love. In place of your everyday job, reverie might find you a TV actor, or in movies. That would be cool—fraternizing and working with show-biz superstars. And hey, why not marry the world’s most famous model? She’ll need a great place to live … maybe the Hollywood Hills? And you two could chum around with a top music superstar of the past century.
I’m going out on a limb, but here’s my guess: for the rest of our lives, most of us would relish owning any one thing from that list. But all of them?
Meet Ticonderoga native Whitney Armstrong, a.k.a. Michael Witney. Born there in 1931, he was raised and schooled in the community of Chilson and attended Ticonderoga High School, graduating at 15, well ahead of the average student. Due to his young age, he remained in school for two years for what was termed post-graduate study.
Friends noted that Whitney played guitar and was an excellent singer, but that was just the beginning. His athletic prowess proved the equal of his classroom abilities. Armstrong became the center and leading scorer on the school’s basketball team, the ace of the pitching staff, and a football star as well. In area athletics, few were his equal.
Among his contemporaries was Johnny Podres of Witherbee—not only a star pitcher himself (and destined for greatness), but widely known for his abilities on the basketball court. In 1949, Whitney was a unanimous choice for the All-League Basketball Squad, with Podres joining him on the starting five.
Whatever he played, Whitney’s efforts earned superlatives from sportswriters: “… Armstrong dominates from the pivot … hurling magnificent ball for the Chilson team … a 23-yard pass to Whitney Armstrong, who made a magnificent diving catch in the end zone.” By all accounts he was truly gifted.
He attended Cortland State and once again became a three-sport star. Thirty years later, Coach Larry Martin, a former teammate of Armstrong’s, said, “I still consider him the best athlete to come out of Cortland.” His former coach, Pete Corey, recalled Whitney as a brilliant student aspiring to a career in medicine. “We designed a special curriculum for him with the most difficult anatomy and science courses.” Turning to sports, Corey added, “He was one of the greatest athletes the school has ever had. He was a real all-American boy.”
In 1953, when Johnny Podres broke into the big leagues with Brooklyn, Whitney was signed by those same Dodgers, joining their Class D team in Hornell, New York. And for you sports lovers out there, get this: in the off-season, both men came home and played as teammates on the local semi-pro basketball team, the Port Henry Hawks, proving that there once was a time when sports wasn’t just about the money. (Whitney, by the way, was a big guy, listed by the Hawks as 6 foot 4 and 220 pounds.)
After one season of baseball at Hornell, he joined the military and was stationed at Fort Hood, where he again excelled in sports, particularly football. In 1956, after discharge from the service, Armstrong played for the Dodgers’ Montana affiliate, the Great Falls Electrics, but arm trouble eventually ended his dream of making the big time.
In November of that year, he married Donna Bailey in Helena and settled down in Great Falls. Whitney later worked as a chemist in East Helena and played in the region’s semi-pro league, where he turned in several outstanding performances.
Around 1960, they moved to San Diego, California, where Armstrong worked as a chemist for Lederle Pharmaceuticals and began partaking in the local theater scene. A visiting director invited him to audition for the prestigious La Jolla Playhouse. There he won a part in Under the Yum-Yum Tree. Twelve weeks of continuous sellout performances led to other acting gigs. Among those taking notice was an agent, inviting him to give movies a try.
Whitney continued appearing in stage productions, including a high-profile stint in San Diego at the Globe Theater’s Shakespeare Festival, where he gained wide notice for performances in King Henry IV–Part Two, Othello, and Taming of the Shrew.
Conclusion: Having it all, and losing it.
Photos: From Witney’s first movie, The Way West (promo photo)