of a Legendary Athletics Coach and a Formidable Disciplinarian
This is the second post of a two-part post which consists of five article submissions on Denis Armstrong. Read the first post here.
This post comprises the contributions from :
- Paul Selvadurai;
- Peter Sinniah;
- Dr Michael Tay Choon Hock.
Some Individuals Cannot Be Replaced
They Are Forever One of A Kind!
Former La Salle Brickfields athletics coach, Denis Armstrong, who had a Hall of Fame career, was beloved by his athletes. He remains one of the nation’s revered figures in athletics.
I remember him as an outstanding coach, teacher and role model for his students. Denis Armstrong cannot be replaced. He is one of a kind, and in the field of athletics, I will remember him as one of its true pillars.
A Master Tactician
Coach Denis possessed one of the greatest minds in athletics. He was also a master tactician. When he was building an elite
athletics programme at the school, he was clearly ahead of his time. He was also adept at dealing with disciplinary issues with a firm resolve. Coach Denis’s greatest gift was his unique ability to teach what it takes to become a good human being. That was easy for him because he is a great man.
Paramedic in Disguise
I still remember that fateful day when I was running a 4X 100 metre relay race. I was the last runner and I was supposed to be the fastest too. It was 1.30 pm when some of us gathered on the field for training under Coach Denis for the Inter Schools Athletics Meet. Four of us ran in the race – the other three were: Michael Tay, Puranan Govindasamy and Sandara Segaran.
I was quite exhausted after running a few times. On my last practice run, I received the baton from Puranan. He also accidentally hit and scratched my ankle with his Addidas spikes. I dropped on the field in pain. My ankle was bleeding profusely.
At the same time, I noticed Coach Denis sprinting across the field towards me like a trained paramedic. He took out his handkerchief and tied it around my ankle to arrest the bleeding.
Though I was in great pain, I was suitably comforted by Coach Denis’s presence and attention. The great Coach Denis carried me with his strong arms and raced towards his Lambretta scooter.
He then promptly brought me to Dr. Vaithynathan’s Clinic which happened to be a stone’s throw from our school. After I was attended to by the doctor and had received twelve stitches, I was then sent home by the coach.
Other Talents of Coach Denis’s
As grateful as I am, I also feel very blessed because he was such a great influence on me. I cannot imagine anyone being a better influence than Coach Denis.
I just cannot imagine that. Despite all his successes with impressionable school-boy athletes, he was much more than that. Coach Denis was able to train, inspire, motivate and mould us into champion athletes.
And finally, he was a mentor, a father figure and I am happy to say, also a friend.
Coach Denis Armstrong’s unforgettable maxim is: ‘Do the best you can. Do the absolute best you can. Don’t leave any stone unturned. And then live with it’.
Teacher and Pastor
Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
What’s Your Choice?
It Is Not Always Black and White: There Are Many Shades of Grey!
The name Denis Armstrong has always conveyed a sense of fear and trepidation among students of La Salle Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.
It was a well-earned reputation. This stemmed from those rare occasions when you were directed to go to his office for some offence that you had committed.
He would show you the type of canes he had and the guilty party was given the choice of selecting the particular cane. These students had to reluctantly point to the cane of choice, whilst trembling in fear of the pain it would have on contact with their rear ends!
What is your choice?
As a student, you can choose to remain on the straight and narrow or go off the rails. It is your choice.
Solid Pep Talk
It was on the first day at the start of the school session in 1967 that I saw this towering figure. He was very well dressed. He was dressed in well-tailored pants with a soft coloured shirt. Nice choice of soft colours and well matched. He started by telling us what it means to be thirteen. Thirteen, he emphasised, was the beginning of our teenage years. Denis Armstrong continued sombrely. He said it was a period when we could either make it or break it to become adults. These were our formative years. He also cautioned us that our hormones would be working overtime and that we could get into activities that were not good for our wellbeing.
‘What is your choice’ began to resonate once again.
He also stressed on discipline, paying attention to our studies and not letting our parents down. The role of the teacher was explained and how it was their duty to mould us.
Another Side to Denis Armstrong
There is another side to him that I wish to share. The cane was not used indiscriminately. What happened to Joseph Choo and I would give credence to this.
One afternoon, when both of us were at the entrance of the Form 2 Green classroom (in 1968), we caught sight of one of our pretty young lady teachers wearing a short mini-skirt walking along the corridor.
Being teenagers, we got excited and started yelling at the top of our voices to the rest of the class. Lo and behold, from out of the blue, Denis Armstrong appeared and told us curtly to “wait in my office”.
That was a long one-hour wait for both of us. We knew we had it. Then he walked into the office, looked at us and did not direct us to go into his room.
Instead, he said softly, “don’t be so loud the next time.” Then he advised us to go to our class. Whew! That was a relief but today, we realise that Denis Armstrong looked at us as normal, boisterous, growing teenage boys.
Took a Personal Interest in Us
Like most La Sallian teachers, he took a personal interest in all of us, and where possible, got to know our parents. I remain grateful that he, together with the late headmaster Albert Rozario, made sure that Chan Hoe Yoon and I were exempted from school fees. He knew my mother well. He had confided a few months ago that she was very much concerned about my studies. Denis had identified me for some athletic event because of my size but my mother never gave me the permission to pursue it.
When ‘ Tough Love ‘ Made Sense
The strict discipline that Denis instilled in us is the reason that makes many former students of La Salle Brickfields desire to meet up with him. I know that many students who were at the receiving end hold no grudges. Some have even expressed thanks for such discipline.
I sometimes see him doing his marketing in PJ Old Town, shopping at Tong Woh Pharmacy or handling his banking in PJ New Town.
He is equally disciplined about food and is health conscious. He has his chosen hobbies and has cultivated a small circle of friends, former colleagues and old boys whom he meets socially on a regular basis.
And Denis Armstrong is still accorded due reverence as our teacher because today that name also conveys respect. As we talk to him and share experiences, we are still learning from him about his approach to life and living a good life.
Thank You Sir Denis Armstrong.
Subang, Selangor, Malaysia
David and Goliath Battle
No Substitute for Proper Training and Preparation
My first impression of Denis Armstrong was that he was someone to be feared and avoided! He was very strict and stern and used his cane quite often.
But on looking back now, we know that he meant well and wanted all of us to excel.
Technically Sound Coach
I had the privilege and good fortune to be trained by Coach Denis Armstrong. I had been selected by him to be a member of the school’s 4×100 metre relay team while still in Form Two! He was a dedicated, demanding and technically sound coach.
He impressed upon us that even though we were not all top sprinters, we could still beat the best relay team. To achieve that feat, we had to train hard and perfect our baton changing technique.
His Baton Changing Techniques
Coach Denis ensured that the baton changing was done without the front-runner looking back. The incoming runner would have to put the baton on the outstretched hand of the front-runner.
Coach Denis made us practise the baton change repeatedly to ensure perfection.
What is the great idea here? The idea is to keep the baton going throughout the race without much loss of speed.
We were also coached not to clench our fists while running and also to run with our toes pointing forwards … and not sideways like ducks!
David versus Goliath Competition
In 1968, four young Form Two boys were sent to represent La Salle Brickfields Secondary School in the Under 15 Kuala Lumpur Athletics Meet Inter-School Invitational Relay held at the La Salle Peel Road School field. We were up against some of the best relay teams in KL and they were all Form Three boys!
We were also the school’s second relay team. We felt like it was a ‘David versus Goliath‘ battle. We, however, gave it our best shot, ran the race of our lives and came in third. To us, this bronze achievement was as good as gold.
We also won the first place in the Inter La Salle School Sports Meet later that year in the Division B Category. Alas, the May 13 tragedy the following year ended our quest for further honours and glory.
Unknown Facets of Coach Denis’s Personality
It was Coach Denis who brought me to buy my first pair of spikes. The spikes were white with blue stripes. That was almost fifty years ago.
On a personal note, Denis’s advice helped me to overcome my stammering. As a young boy, I would stammer a lot, especially when under stress. Denis noticed this and one day, he pulled me aside.
He then gave me this sound advice: he told me to read while looking at myself in the mirror. I did that daily, and in time, I managed to overcome the stammering.
We, the athletes, especially the sprinters, owe it all to Coach Denis Armstrong. He trained us well and drove us hard. In conclusion, I would add that Denis Armstrong and all the teachers at La Salle Brickfields played a part in moulding me to become the person I am today.
Dr. Michael Tay Choon Hock
General Practitioner & Partner
Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia
Why is a La Sallian Education So Unforgettable?
This is a serious question. Many who did not have the opportunity to attend a La Salle school cannot fathom this phenomenon. I shall, therefore, try to explain the mystique, attractiveness and unique features of a La Sallian education in this sharing.
But first, let me declare up front that I am a true blue La Sallian, four times over! I had my primary education at St John Primary School, Kuala Lumpur; secondary education at St John’s Institution in Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur; and my two-year teacher training course at St Joseph’s Training College in Pulau Tikus, Penang. I also taught for 15 years at only one school – La Salle Secondary School, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.
The French Revolution
The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching, dramatic, social and political upheaval in France. It lasted for about ten tumultuous years from 1789 to 1799.
The French Revolution succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and established a republic. During this period, France experienced violent periods of unrest and one of the most notable was the Storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a royal fortress as well as a prison!
The execution of King Louis XV1 by means of the dreaded guillotine took place on 21 January 1793. The French monarchy and the ruling class were totally indifferent to the sufferings of the people.
They lived in a world of their own, divorced from the grim reality the people faced on a daily basis. They were thus simply out of touch with what was affecting the people of France, especially during the famines.
What made it even worse was this infamous and insensitive quote attributed to the King’s wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, when she heard about the suffering of the people: ‘Let them eat cake’.
This was the sad and dire situation for the peasants for many, many years before all this led to the dramatic French Revolution.
St John Baptist de La Salle
John Baptist de La Salle, who qualified as a priest, is the founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. He was the first son of wealthy parents living in France over 300 years ago. His mother, interestingly enough, was a relative of Claude Moet, founder of that famous champagne, Moet & Chandon. John Baptist saw first hand the stark inequalities of life in France during his lifetime of sixty-seven years, especially for those who were socially and economically disadvantaged.
Unlike the ruling class, John Baptist chose to think deeply about these matters, and thereafter decided to do something positive about it. That led him to dedicate and devote his life to the education of poor children in France. His huge legacy to the Last, the Lost and the Least in our society is testament to that unwavering zeal and commitment.
Today, thousands of schools, colleges and universities bearing his name are found all over the world. La Sallian education is highly valued and respected and is synonymous with high quality, wholesome education.
La Sallian Education in Malaysia
The La Salle Brothers first came to George Town in Penang, Malaya in 1852. Today, there are over forty plus primary and secondary schools, not just in Peninsular Malaya but also throughout Malaysia, including in Sabah and Sarawak. In the early days, all the La Sallian schools in Malaya, and later Malaysia, had La Salle Brothers serving in them as teachers as well as headmasters and principals.
After Malaya gained independence in August 1957, this slowly but surely changed. We could no longer get Irish, Canadian and Burmese La Salle Brothers to serve in these schools and had to rely on vocations from the locals. And over time, many locals also left the brotherhood for various reasons.
The La Salle Brothers were ably supported, in this noble mission to provide quality education in their schools, by groups of dedicated lay teachers. Some were Catholics but many were former students who later became teachers and although some were Hindus and Buddhists, they readily supported the La Salle Brothers’ approach to quality education.
These individuals could clearly see that the La Salle Brothers were men of substance and conviction. These individuals had voluntarily chosen to take up this noble vocation, live in communities, take some tough vows and dedicate their austere lives to the education of poor children in particular. Such nobility of purpose in this world is rare indeed.
Core Values and Features of a La Salle Education
The sole ministry of La Salle Education is the provision of education relevant to spirituality, citizenship and human development. Its mission of providing education is seen as a work of love and its service to society. What could be more laudable than that high ideal?
Likewise, John Baptist also had the intention of forming and developing school teachers. The aim here was a total dedication to the instruction and education of the children of the working class and those who are socially and economically marginalised.
John Baptist is rightfully credited as the founder of modern education. He introduced new teaching methods as he systematised and made practical many of the educational methods considered standard today. This system centres on deeply meaningful values and vision. It also assists children to develop their character and moral compass.
Extra Curricular Activities were Promoted
The La Sallian educational experience is not just about academic results. Equally important are the many extra-curricular activities that the students are encouraged to participate in. The choice is varied and there is usually something for everyone. There is a whole range of activities in the fields of athletics, sports and games.
There are uniformed units for students to join like the Boy Scouts Troop, Cadet Corps, Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance etc. Then again, there is a range of societies to join: the debating society; the careers club; the gardening society; and the drama society, to name a few.
It was also common in those days for some teachers to organise visits to places of interest for their students. I took my boys, for instance, on educational visits to factories like Lam Soon, Alcom Malaysia, Lever Brothers etc. They were able to see, first hand, some of the operations at these factories. The students did like the light refreshments served to them as guests. In one factory, they were amazed at the sheer intensity of the flames from the furnace. No textbook could convey that!
I also organised a day trip to Malacca for the students of my class for 14 of the 15 years that I taught. I did this for two reasons: to reward the boys for cooperating with me as the class teacher of Form Three Yellow; and also because it gave me a chance to conduct a history lesson while in Malacca.
I showed them the various historical sites and explained the background. History was my teaching option in college but I never got to teach the subject because I was assigned to teach Agricultural Science! These were activities that I willingly volunteered to carry out. There were many administrative tasks associated with these visits: prior approval from headmaster as well as the state education department; permission from the parents; letter to the Police departments in Brickfields, Seremban and Malacca etc. But this was all part of the wider educational experience that students should be given.
A school’s Sports Day was one of the great highlights of the year. Much emphasis was given to the Malaysian School Sports Council games and championship events. There was even an Inter La Salle Sports Meet for students. Believe it or not, there was also a much anticipated Malaya wide Inter La Salle Sports Meet for teachers from St Xavier’s in Penang, St. George’s in Taiping, St Michael’s in Ipoh, St Paul’s in Seremban, St. Francis in Malacca and St. John’s in Kuala Lumpur.
La Salle Brothers as Role Models
In France, during the time of John Baptist, teachers were referred to as Masters. John Baptist took a deliberate and different approach. He wanted the students and parents to see the teacher as a sort of elder Brother. He also wanted the students to look up to the Brothers as role models. An LSB old boy, now working in Kuantan, Pahang once shared this nugget of information with me.
He said: “In a small school like La Salle Brickfields, it was easy for the boys to know each other quite well. It was also easy for the teachers to interact not just with other teachers but more so with the students and to get to know them fairly well.
It was also an era when life was much simpler and people were generally kind and decent to each other. There were no chain link fences separating the houses and no signs on the gate warning people of a fierce dog in the house! We knew how to talk to each other in a civil manner and when both teachers and students were ‘colour blind‘ where race was concerned! And people were not obsessed with smartphones, iPads and other similar devices that seem to make them hardcore addicts of technology“!
I think he summed it up well. At the end of the day, it is that all-important heady mix of ethos, culture, tradition and sound values that defines a La Sallian education.