Surrounded by the hundreds and hundreds of military-related artifacts in the Westerly Armory — including noble mannequins in full uniform — Roberta Mudge Humble, who grew up not far from the castle-like red brick building where she is board president, appears embraced by the army of objects.
The very wartime uniform worn by her own father, the late Robert Mudge, looks over her shoulder, as a silent reminder to her to cherish history, which she has done and continues to do on various levels.
While the petite college English professor never enlisted or served in the military, she is a soldier in more ways than one.
On this Thursday, having just cleaned the Armory restrooms, she tells of the journey to save the crumbling, 100-year-old building — which sits on the National Register of Historic Places — from apathy. She tells of the volunteers who have filled it with museum-quality, war-torn military objects, and who have helped arrange to have the building used steadily and carefully ever since. And she tells of the days ahead, of the campaign she is co-chairing to raise more funds for the building's benefit.
She has served her community and honored her father's memory, and it would seem to be enough.
But there's more.
Roberta Mudge Humble holds the post of Commander of the Rhode Island Commandery, Military Order of Foreign Wars, a group which awards scholarships, supports veterans and ROTC, helps maintain historic military monuments and armories, and promotes the study of American military history. She has also been a faithful writer for the Department of Defense through her work with the Rhode Island Committee for Employer Support of the Guard & Reserve, and co-authored a book of all 18 Historic Armories of Rhode Island, noting in the preface: "Armories have meaning for every one of us. Besides their military missions to safely store arms and to provide base homes for military units, almost all of Rhode Island's armories have a close attachment to the people of their communities."
"I just can't imagine not being loyal to the military," she explained. "It's what makes this country what it is. I think we do not, especially today, remember how much we owe the people who have gone off to serve," she says.
One of the best trips she ever took in her life, she said — and there have been many—was to Fort Sill, Oklahoma almost three decades ago by way of the Community College of Rhode Island, where she teaches technical writing.
"I was most impressed," she recalled of her face-to-face vacation with the troops.
Her committee work followed, and through it, she returned to the Westerly Armory in the 1980s, recalling how it once was the location of local poultry shows and dances when she was a youngster. But what she discovered upon entering its arched front door as an adult, was that the building she remembered "was a mess."
Built in 1901-1902, the structure was used by artillery units, had a one-lane bowling alley in the basement where there also was a rifle range. Though Thanksgiving weekend has turned into a shopping frenzy for many, in Westerly, from 1912-to 1954, it was a time to attend the poultry show held at the Armory. It would later serve the community for Scout meetings and as home to the Westerly Band, one of the oldest active civic bands in the nation.
While Military Order of Foreign Wars work brought her back to the Armory, a love of old buildings — Rhode Island's old buildings — inspired her to stay and form a committee called Westerly Armory Restoration (WAR) to start fundraising and grant-writing. Thousands of dollars and many hours of restoration later, the building is clean and gorgeous, a town-owned shrine.
Though at age 67, Mudge Humble maintains a teaching career in addition to her work at the Westerly Armory and at the Commandery, her creative outlet is as Rhode Island's most loyal cheerleader. She has written several state trivia books and games, and last spring, took a lecture series about Rhode Island to several southern and western states "to spread the good news," as she likes to say.
Sitting in the Westerly Armory at a massive table donated by a local doctor, with chairs donated by Washington Trust Bank and looking at artifacts kept in a glass case donated by a former downtown Westerly store, she reflected upon her life.
"I love the fact that the military can make you feel a part of something," she says. "We should have pride. We have a great state and a great nation."
George C. Miller, webmaster for the national Military Order of Foreign Wars, as well as for the Rhode Island Commandery, praised Mudge Humble, noting "she has spent many hours planning and administrating our organization. She is both intuitive to the organization's goals and innovative in bringing new concepts to the program."
"I have a whole goals thing set up to make our groups more visible to the public," Mudge Humble said.
"The people of Westerly and Pawcatuck always used this building and I want them to use it more. We'd like them to be members. Come see the history. Come to the events. We have fabulous events here — classical concerts to boxing."
The Westerly Armory is located at 8 Dixon St., Westerly.
For more information on upcoming community events; call 401.596.8554 or visit www.westerlyarmory.org or the Westerly Armory Facebook page.