Trevor Armbrister, 72; Reader's Digest Writer Started Volunteer Group

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

Trevor Armbrister, 72, a correspondent for Reader's Digest who ghostwrote Gerald R. Ford's best-selling presidential memoirs and later founded a major humanitarian organization, died March 22 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Chevy Chase.

During his 32 years at the Digest's Washington bureau, Mr. Armbrister covered everything from voter fraud and Capitol Hill influence peddling to the international drug trade. He wrote a well-received book, "A Matter of Accountability" (1970), about North Korea's 1968 capture of the U.S. spy ship Pueblo. He also ghostwrote the autobiography of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

After writing in the Digest about a charitable organization in Midland, Tex., that refurbished houses and barns for needy families, Mr. Armbrister was inspired to start a similar group in Washington. In 1982, he founded Christmas in April, which has rehabilitated 2,500 houses in the Washington area for poor, elderly or disabled homeowners.

"I'd never done anything like this," Mr. Armbrister told The Washington Post in 1988, "but this barn-raising that I had seen with my own eyes just kept staying with me. Everybody will give you a day [of volunteer labor] if they can see that it makes a difference."

From 1988 to 1992, Mr. Armbrister was the first national chairman of the organization, which is now called Rebuilding Together and has grown into the largest volunteer home rehabilitation group in the country, with 240 affiliates in 48 states. Rebuilding Together is rehabilitating 1,000 houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina last year and soon expects to refurbish its 100,000th home.

"He had determination and vision," said Patricia Riley Johnson, Rebuilding Together's president and chief executive. "He also had a vast network of friends and encouraged them to deliver what they could."

Geoffrey Trevor Armbrister was born Dec. 4, 1933, in Norwalk, Conn., and grew up in Darien, Conn. He was a 1956 graduate of Washington and Lee University, where he was a member of the varsity wrestling team.

After two years in the Army, he worked in public relations for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York before becoming a contributing editor to the Saturday Evening Post. He was Washington bureau chief from 1965 to 1969, when the magazine folded.

In 1970, he joined the Washington office of Reader's Digest, where he was known as "an indefatigable investigator" and "a clear and compelling storyteller," said the magazine's former bureau chief, William Schulz.

"If there was a common theme to his stories, it was misuse of power," said John Mitchell, a Reader's Digest colleague. "He knew who his readers were. He knew that if something outraged him, they would be outraged, too."

His retelling of the 1969 murder of reform-minded United Mine Workers leader Joseph A. Yablonski and his family in "Act of Vengeance: The Yablonski Murders and Their Solution" (1975) was called "a brilliant book" by The Washington Post. It was made into a 1986 television film starring Charles Bronson as Yablonski.

Mr. Armbrister spent two years on Ford's memoirs, which were published in 1979 as "A Time to Heal."

Recalling his initial interview with the former president, Mr. Armbrister told The Post in 1983: "My half-hour meeting turned into a three-hour meeting, and then I was asked to step outside, with the Secret Service men and the family dogs. Forty-five minutes later, Ford reappeared, stuck out his hand, and said, 'You're my guy.'

"The more straightforward I was, the better Ford liked it, and over the next year and three-quarters I grew to have a real reverence for the guy."

Mr. Armbrister said he once spent an hour and a half talking with Ford about sex on Capitol Hill. The former congressman and president admitted he'd had plenty of opportunities but turned them all down.

In 1972, Mr. Armbrister wrote a book about a year in the life of a congressman with then-Rep. Donald W. Riegle (R-Mich.). Hastert's memoir, "Speaker: Lessons from Forty Years of Coaching and Politics," was published in 2004.

Mr. Armbrister was a member of St. Columba's Episcopal Church in Washington and the Cosmos Club. He served on the board of the Heart of America Foundation and received many awards for his charitable work.

His marriage to DuBos Middleton Armbrister ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 21 years, Judith Cass Armbrister of Chevy Chase; two sons from his first marriage, Robertson Armbrister of Fredericksburg and Alec Armbrister of Washington; and a sister.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company