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'A little faith'

This week, West Yellowstone couple celebrates COVID-19 vaccination — and 68 years of marriage

This week, West Yellowstone couple celebrates COVID-19 vaccination — and 68 years of marriage

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WEST YELLOWSTONE — January and February are months of celebration for Norval and Shirley Armstrong.

In January, they celebrated their birthdays. Both were born on the 28th. Norval turned 92. Shirley 93.

Feb. 20 is their wedding anniversary. This year it marks 68 years of marriage.

This year, January and February have been particularly special for the Armstrongs.

On Jan. 22, a little less than a week before their birthdays, the Armstrongs became some of the first people in Montana to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

On Friday, a day before their anniversary, Norval and Shirley will return to Bozeman for their final dose of the vaccine, joining more than 52,000 Montanans who have been fully vaccinated. 

Shirley's hopeful the vaccine will knock out the virus and bring life back to normal.

"You have to have a little faith in something,” Shirley said.

Norval and Shirley Armstrong

Shirley Armstrong listens to her husband tell a story in the cabin they built in 1994 in West Yellowstone.

The Armstrongs were able to get the vaccine at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds through Bozeman's Veterans Affairs clinic.

Both of them are vets — in fact, it's how they met, by chance in 1950. 

Norval is from Iowa. Shirley is from upstate New York.

Norval and Shirley Armstrong

Norval Armstrong holds a framed photo of him and his wife, Shirley, with their three kids in one hand and a picture of their great-grandson in the other on Feb. 2, 2021, in West Yellowstone.

Norval had joined the Iowa National Guard and was about to be deployed overseas. He got on a plane and made it as far as Bangor, Maine, where doctors scanned X-rays of his lungs and found he was suspected of having tuberculosis, a potentially serious lung disease that is spread through tiny droplets released into the air by coughs and sneezes, according to Mayo Clinic.

He was sent to the Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, which specialized in treating TB.

Shirley, who was in the Army Nurse Corps from 1951 to 1955, was stationed at the Colorado hospital.

Shirley was a first lieutenant. Norval was a staff sergeant.

“Outranked me then and still does,” Norval said.

Norval said Shirley was one of the fun, happy go-lucky nurses who poked him in the arm with needles.

Shirley wasn’t impressed right away.

“I wasn’t crazy about him, you know, until after he was discharged,” she said.

Norval and Shirley Armstrong

Norval Armstrong smiles in the entryway of the cabin he and his son built in 1994 in West Yellowstone.

After his 14-month stay, Norval was cleared of the disease and discharged from the National Guard. He stayed in Colorado and got a job. 

And he asked Shirley out on a date.

They’d go to the movies and out to eat once in a while. Shirley remembers seeing Louis Armstrong perform at a club in Aurora. They’d never dance, though.

“I’m tall and she’s short. We never were in sync,” Norval said.

They got married in 1953, at a little chapel at the hospital.

The Armstrongs lived in Colorado long enough to have three kids. Norval worked as a field salesman selling electrical supplies with General Electric — a “peddler,” he likes to say, who to this day makes business cards to hand out with his and Shirley's address. Shirley was a homemaker, taking care of their kids.

In the 1960s, the Armstrongs moved the family to Arizona. Norval kept “peddling.” Shirley went back to work as a charge nurse at a hospital in Scottsdale.

They eventually retired and bought a vacation cabin in Arizona. In 1990, a forest fire burned the cabin down. 

They started looking elsewhere for land. Their son lived in Montana, and they wound up buying land near West Yellowstone. They built a cabin there. 

They were snowbirds then — warm months here, cold months back in Arizona. 

“Finally it got to be too much of a chore, and we just decided to stay here,” Norval said.

Now West Yellowstone is their home. They've added onto their cabin near Hebgen Lake. During the warmer months, they get together with neighbors for barbecues. 

Norval and Shirley Armstrong

Shirley and Norval Armstrong stand in front of the cabin they built in 1994 in West Yellowstone.

Shirley said Norval's always been a socialite, and it's part of the reason she's stopped going to the grocery store with him.

"If he doesn't know them, he introduces himself," Shirley said.

For all Shirley’s been through, she said, she’s never seen anything like COVID-19. When she was a student, she said, she worked in the infection control wards at the hospital.

“I never caught anything because I used good technique, you know? But this virus is so contagious — it’s scary,” Shirley said.

Norval's eager to get the final vaccine dose. But until then, he knows what to do. 

"Keep the faith, like she said, wash your hands and wear your mask. What else can you do? You can't go hide any place," Norval said.

Norval and Shirley Armstrong

Shirley and Norval Armstrong stand in front of the cabin they built in 1994 in West Yellowstone.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.