The Ambassador Experience

The following passage is taken from the book Dare to Think for Yourself by Betty Brogaard, published online at www.ageofreason.org

When I joined the Worldwide Church of God in 1957, I naively relinquished my right to think for myself.  By the time I entered Ambassador College in 1959, I was thoroughly indoctrinated.  I didn’t dare state an opposite opinion or express my doubts.  When questions arose, which they often did, I suppressed them and asked God to forgive me for doubting.

At college, besides the force-feeding of doctrine in every class, there were numerous campus rules and regulations which had to be obeyed.  We had room monitors, floor monitors and dorm monitors—spies that made sure there were no infractions or bad attitudes.

I’ve never been in the Armed Service, but I’d be willing to bet that discipline and obedience were stressed as much at Ambassador as they are in the Army.  Discipline, of course, is not all bad; but we all strove for the ideal—ultimate perfection—out of our fear of God (and those that were “his” representatives).

Too often it was a case of “You do as I say, not as I do.”  In fact, we were actually taught that those in authority over us were not to be criticized (especially the ordained ministry); God would correct them when necessary in “his” own way and time.

I worked my way through Ambassador College as secretary to various high-ranking executives and ministers of the Worldwide Church of God.  My employment continued at the college after I graduated and married and while my husband was completing his studies there.

In 1965, I was working in the Administration Building as receptionist and secretary for several ministers who also taught at the college.  During that time, Nevelene Swaney, a deaconess and the secretary to Herbert W and Garner Ted Armstrong, came down with a very serious case of meningitis.  (I wonder why she wasn’t healed when she had immediate access to God’s only living apostle on earth at that time.)

Well, anyway, my expertise and experience as a secretary was noted; and on the recommendation of Nevelene and with the counsel, of course, of top-ranking ministers, I became secretary to Herbert W Armstrong and his son Garner Ted while Nevelene recuperated.

Before then, I had never been inside the penthouse offices which were located above the library at that time.  Every major building, office and home connected to the Ambassador campus and occupied by high-ranking officials or ministers were of highest quality.  I wasn’t prepared, however, for the luxury of the Armstrong offices.

Deep piled carpeting graced the floors of the professionally decorated penthouse complex.  Typewriters (we did not yet have computers) and other office equipment were the best money could buy.  Desks and furniture were of the finest woods.  The over-stuffed sofas and chairs in muted colors and exquisite taste were comfortable beyond any I had ever occupied.  (I sat in each one when no one was around; but I never sat behind either of the Armstrong’s desks.  To me that would have been almost sacrilegious.)

As I remember, there were six different areas in the penthouse complex.  It included a small, well-equipped kitchen and a glass-walled informal eating area overlooking a portion of the beautifully landscaped college campus. On the opposite side of the office complex was a private outside verandah containing a chaise lounge, a patio table and chairs.  Ted sometimes ate his special ordered steak lunches there.

At the beginning of this most prestigious assignment for a woman of the Worldwide Church, I was absolutely in awe of the “godly” men for whom I worked and my plush surroundings.  I personally had never known anyone who actually used gold-plated bathroom fixtures in an office—but the Armstrongs did!

The fixtures in the bathroom that I and two other office employees used were of good quality stainless steel—nice but not gold!  These other penthouse personnel were a part-time student helper and a minister who acted primarily as Garner Ted’s personal assistant.  He also substituted for the two Armstrongs if they were out of town or otherwise occupied and couldn’t teach their Bible classes.

Nevelene coached me by telephone from her sickbed with regard to my duties.  Even though she was weak for many months, she was always available for my questions at any time.  She told me how to shield the Armstrongs from unwanted phone calls, outside visitors, especially reporters, over-zealous admirers and converts or just plain kooks (and there were quite a few of them attracted, as well as attached, to the organization).

Nevelene encouraged me to continually study office protocol.  Anything I typed and sent from the penthouse to anyone had to be letter perfect and grammatically correct.  I, also, was taught when never to interrupt the Armstrongs in their offices and when it was permissible to do so.

Everything concerning the penthouse was a big deal.  At least every other week, for example, two beautiful, expensive bouquets of gigantic chrysanthemums were purchased by the head gardener at the college.  He personally ordered and selected the blossoms from the Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles and delivered them to the penthouse.

There were, I believe, ten or twelve white ones for Herbert’s office and the same number of gold ones for Ted’s.  Nevelene instructed me always to arrange them exactly the same way in the same gold-trimmed containers and to make sure I watered them sufficiently on a daily basis.

I remember how I struggled to duplicate her arrangements on my first few attempts.  I measured the stem of each one I took out of the vases and cut the new ones to that exact length before inserting them into the florist’s clay.  I don’t know why such care was taken as I doubt that the Armstrongs ever even noticed them.

Often the flowers I replaced appeared to be almost as fresh as the new ones; so I sometimes took the old ones home with me.  The drab, two-room, garage apartment I shared with my husband, our first home together, was on the Ambassador campus and located behind a South Orange Grove mansion.  This was occupied by an eccentric Ambassador professor and his family.  He was, also, Dean of Instruction and an evangelist.

Except on Saturday (the Sabbath Day), when no work of any sort was to be done, and on Sunday, when I did most of my washing, ironing, shopping and cleaning, I arose early to be sure I was the first one at the penthouse offices.  I made the coffee (to exact measurements for the taste preferred by “God’s holiest men on earth”), opened and laid out their mail and tidied their desks.

It should be noted that ministers in the Worldwide Church of God were never addressed as “Reverend.”  Why?  Because of such Bible verses as Psalm 111:9: “He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant forever: holy and reverend is HIS name” (KJV—emphases mine).

We always addressed the Worldwide clergy and their wives, therefore, as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” whatever-was-their-last-name.  Even the lowest on the ordination scale, i.e. deacons and deaconesses, or anyone placed in direct authority over us were always “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Miss.”

As church members we would never have dishonored a person who held a god-ordained office or minister-appointed position by addressing them by their first names unless we were given permission to do so.  But times, and especially I, have changed.  I feel no remorse, therefore, in identifying any member of the cult by his or her first name.

I should perhaps clarify that Ambassador college students were permitted to call their room or dorm monitors, who were also students, by their first names.

Now, as I write this, it all sounds so silly.

Anyway, continuing with my “penthouse” experience, in 1966, at the end of the school year, Nevelene Swaney was well enough to return to work.  My husband had just completed his junior year at Ambassador College and was sent to Portland, Oregon, for the summer where he trained directly under one of the field ministers.  Fred performed much like a vicar or assistant to the pastor.  Of course, I was expected to go with him.  While there I worked in the pastor’s office, sometimes baby-sat his children and observed what it would be like to be the wife of an ordained minister.

Shortly after we returned to Pasadena for Fred’s final year at college, I was working for one of the evangelists who also headed the radio studio where the World Tomorrow broadcast was produced.  One day I was summoned to the penthouse and summarily placed back in the position as secretary to the Armstrongs.  It seems that Nevelene Swaney had been disfellowshipped from the church because she was “demon possessed”!  Being disfellowshipped carried with it complete ostracism, and I was not to have any contact whatsoever with her.

Rationally I knew that something more than even so-called demonic possession had taken place.  She was one of the most sane and knowledgeable professional women I had ever met.  You see, Nevelene knew about Ted’s years of philandering and cheating on his wife.  She knew about female students at college on whom he had worked his charms because these girls had confided in her.

In fact, Nevelene had warned me the first time I had substituted for her that I should make certain I was nothing but professional with Garner Ted Armstrong; I should never discuss personal matters or feelings with him.  At first I was puzzled why she should say these things to me.

I had heard rumors, however, concerning some impropriety involving at least two former student assistants in the penthouse and other coeds.  So, I finally understood that Nevelene was trying to protect me without being disloyal to “God’s chosen servants.”

During my first brief assignment at the Armstrong offices, I asked her specifically if that was what she was referring to.  She never revealed details, but she gave me enough information that I knew basically what had taken place between the girls and Ted.  And it wasn’t too hard to figure out who those girls were.

Something must have happened or come to light that forced Nevelene to confront Herbert Armstrong himself with her knowledge of his son’s continuing indiscretions.  Apparently both Herbert and his first wife Loma were outraged by her accusations.  The result was that Nevelene was accused of having a demon.  Without hesitation, she was discharged from her deaconess and secretarial responsibilities and ousted from the church.  I was told only the outcome of her actions not specifically what they were.

This was an extremely emotional experience for me, as I admired this woman and her abilities.  After everyone had calmed down and I found myself alone in the office, Ted Armstrong came back in and questioned me about what Nevelene Swaney might have told me about him.

I tried to answer him; but tears welled up, and I began sobbing.  He then admitted to me that he had done things he was ashamed of, that he had confessed on his knees before God and his mother and that he had been forgiven.  I was able only to dumbly shake my head.  After all, this was the second highest ranking minister in the entire Worldwide Church of God acknowledging his carnal sins to a mere female employee.

I was totally overwhelmed by his confession and by my own confusion and grief over what had happened to Nevelene Swaney.  As long as I worked in the penthouse, this subject was never mentioned again.  Of course, Ted’s sexual escapades continued long after my husband and I left Pasadena.  These things became widely known, and Ted was eventually ousted from the church by his father. I don’t believe they ever were reconciled, although I could be wrong about that.

At the end of Fred’s final year at Ambassador College, he was ordained; and we were sent to Seattle, Washington.  The woman who took my place in the penthouse was as stylish as any Worldwide Church of God female could be at that time with the no-make-up ruling and skirt and hair length requirements.  (By the way, in campus buildings, we were not allowed even to wear shoes with slender heels because they made “dents” in the expensive flooring!)  The lady who replaced me was white-haired, self-assured and appeared much older than Ted Armstrong.  I remember that I was the one who first recommended her to Herbert Armstrong as my replacement.

I assure you that I was not sad to give up my exalted position in the penthouse.  During my time there, and for years afterwards as the wife of a minister, I suffered from excruciating migraine headaches, sleepless nights and unbelievable tension trying to be perfect.

I had not yet begun to think for myself.