Capitol Community Mourns ‘Mr. Ivey’

Posted November 5, 2013 at 2:24pm

Ivey Lee Armstrong Sr., affectionately known as “Mr. Ivey” to many in the Capitol, spent nearly 30 years cooking for senators, policemen and support staff. He died Oct. 15 at the age of 62.

Armstrong will be memorialized Friday at From the Heart Church of Ministries in Suitland, Md., with a 10 a.m. viewing and 11 a.m. service. An Army and Army National Guard veteran, Armstrong earned the National Defense Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal and sharpshooter M16 honors, according to his sister Denise Ward.

“To me, to meet Ivey was to love Ivey. He was a very generous individual,” said his brother Jackie Ray Armstrong, one of his eight siblings. “That’s the makeup of him. He just loved people. And he loved babies more.”

Though overworked staffers and overscheduled senators can sometimes take for granted the people who help them get through the days that now seem to stretch perpetually into nights and weekends, Armstrong will be remembered by many as that rare person who provided a brief respite from the acrimony of politics.

With a smile, a “how are you?” and the final question of any Mr. Ivey experience, “pickle?” — fitting for a man born and raised in Mt. Olive, N.C., the pickle capital of the world — Armstrong sent people in the Capitol off with a toasted sandwich and a nod.

The Capitol can be a place packed to the brim with impatient people, toe-tapping and BlackBerry-obsessed, and so the Mr. Ivey experience was not for everyone.

He took his time putting together each and every sandwich — a ritual embraced by many who grew to appreciate what they got in return and were willing to stand in line to do so. He often knew his regulars’ orders by heart.

Colleagues and relatives said Armstrong was one of the most thoughtful, organized and caring people they knew. He was often the first to work in the mornings, his signature backpack in tow, and the last to leave in the evenings, when the carryout in the Senate basement shuttered for the night.

One co-worker, through tears, said that it was “all the little things,” that made Armstrong special.

And multiple people, from reporters to staffers to senators, were quick to express grief about his death and declare him “a sweet man.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., recalled the morning of Christmas Eve 2009, when the Senate was in session to vote on the health care bill and, as so often is the case at odd hours in the Capitol, Armstrong’s griddle was the only game around.

“About 9 o’clock in the morning, when the Capitol was closed, the final vote was coming up  . . .  we all gathered in the Senate carryout to eat and he was down there making sandwiches and biscuits and all that kind of good stuff. We were all laughing — the only place in town that was open [was where we were]. He was always ready,” Isakson said. “You always knew you could count on the Senate carryout. He was so reliable.

“We’ll miss him. My stomach will miss him, I know that,” Isakson added.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, another regular at the Senate carryout, praised Armstrong as “a fine gentleman.”

“He was just — he made us all feel at home. He treated everybody the same, which we really appreciate. It didn’t make any difference whether you were a senator … there was one line,” the Maryland Democrat said. “Just a really, really respectful individual, and [he] just ran that place with such class. So, it’s a huge loss for this institution.

“I eat here frequently because of the quality and because of him,” Cardin said, standing in the Capitol basement not far from the carryout. “It’s part of this institution, and it’s part of a great tradition, and he created a legacy that won’t ever be forgotten.

“It’s the best food anywhere around here. It’s home cooking,” Cardin added.

There was more to Armstrong than just his job, though he took it seriously, Ward said. His family and prayer were the most important things in his life.

He is survived by a large family he loved dearly and that loved him back in spades: four children, 10 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, four brothers, four sisters and many nieces and nephews. At one point, according to his brother, Armstrong had re-enlisted in the military because one of his daughters was sick and he needed to be able to afford her health care.

“He loved his family. He loved children,” Jackie Ray Armstrong said. “If you bring a baby by him and a baby is real cute and has those little puffy cheeks, you better take him back from Ivey because he was gonna [kiss] that baby’s jaw until it turned red. That was just one thing that made him so happy.”

Armstrong was known for his quiet manner, but was in many ways a patriarch of his family in thought and deed — the person others looked to when they wanted to know more about the family history or talk about the Bible. Most years, around Easter, Armstrong would read the Bible cover to cover. He loved to keep journals and his brother said he was the official family historian, keeping piles of huge 3- or-4-inch binders. He also would study the dictionary and would flash a “humongous vocabulary” he had picked up from his reading.

“He was a stargazer. He loved to watch the stars and the formation of clouds. He was unique in every way,” his brother said.

Armstrong loved to cook and pray and sing for his family, and he had a very distinctive laugh, one that those in the Capitol who saw him every day were sometimes lucky enough to hear.

“The thing that I probably will miss most about him is his laugh. And I loved his singing voice. He had such a wonderful singing voice,” his sister said.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.